REVEALED: Why young Indians prefer live-in relationships
The few Bollywood films that offer a romantic view of live-in relationships may have made it a topic of living room discussion in middle class Indian homes. But many of us seem oblivious to its dynamics and its legal, social and emotional repercussions. Live-in couples from across Indian cities tell us their tales.
The house was perfect.
With 720 sq ft of carpet area, it was sprawling by Mumbai standards; and it was bright; and airy. It came with the furniture; and they could move in the next day if they wanted. Overlooking the lush green suburban campus of the Mumbai University, the apartment was located in (as the broker, like all brokers, kept insisting) the heart of the city -- at least three train stations were less than 20 minutes away, the two arterial roads were five and 15 minutes away respectively and the rent was well within budget. What's more, the landlord couple seemed really nice and so did the broker who introduced the two parties. It was a done deal and everyone was all smiles till the house owners popped a fairly casual question, the kinds you ask when you're making small talk.
"How long have you two been married?"
Just as casually, the young couple sitting across the table dressed in a pair of jeans and t-shirt sipping their chai replied that they weren't.
"And you live together?"
It was all downhill after that
"We were pretty much asked to leave the house immediately after he finished ranting," Ozay Parekh recollects of the evening. "It was bizarre. One moment they were fawning upon us, the next moment they were criticising us, commenting on our clothes. And then going off on a tangent, the husband suggested there was no way he would let his house be used for orgies! However much we tried to convince them that we were as 'normal' as any other 'regular married couple', it didn't make a difference! Because we weren't married and were staying together, we were, in their books, swingers and there was no telling them otherwise."
Parekh has been talking animatedly over the phone for a little over 15 minutes telling me his and his partner's house hunting travails. It's funny the way he narrates them but I could imagine it must've been a nightmare.
Finally, having left with few options -- their broker had stopped taking their calls after that meeting -- they decided to pretend they were married. She bought a mangalsutra from the local market, he a ring. She wore an Indian outfit for all the subsequent meetings and he opted for western formals, shirt tucked in. He contemplated oiling his hair too but that he thought was perhaps too much.
Like they had done for job interviews earlier, both rehearsed possible scenarios and planned their answers.
Their next meeting went flawless. They got the house and settled in.
When I spoke to a local property broker, pretending to be a prospective tenant, and told him I was looking for an apartment to rent for my girlfriend and me, he didn't get it. Or at least he said he didn't. "Toh aapko do ghar chahiye?" he asked. "So you want two separate houses?"
Why would I want two houses, I tried to reason with him. My girlfriend was moving in with me and I needed one apartment, large enough to share with her.
"Nahi milega," was all he said before disconnecting the call (You won't get it!)."
Another broker (sounding irritated): "Aisa sab dhanda hum nahi karta hai." (We don't get involved in such deals). Click!
Yet another: "Bol do shaadi ho gaya hai! (Say you're married!)"
His elder brother, with all noble intentions: "Shaadi kyun nahi kar lete? (Why don't you get married?)"
Sounding incredulous (by this time, I wasn't even pretending), I asked him who he thought would pay for my marriage.
Pat came the reply, "Shaadi nahi karoge toh ghar kaisa milega? (How do you expect to get an apartment if you aren't married?)"
The thing about cohabiting in India is that the challenges start even before you move in. What Ozay Parekh and his girlfriend went through isn't new or unusual. To avoid these situations many young couples take the easy way out and lie.
In most cases, it doesn't even matter. Unfortunately in Lakshmi Pandit's life, it did.
Pandit was on the top of the world after having won Miss India-World title in 2004. Days after her victory, news got out that she was married to an aspiring model, Siddharth Mishra. In the lease she'd signed for a rental accommodation in Mumbai, she'd even taken Mishra's last name.
In the days that followed, it turned out that Mishra was only her live-in partner and had lied just so it would be possible for her to get an apartment in Mumbai -- she filed an affidavit in the court to the effect.
Eventually, Pandit surrendered her crown, making her the only beauty queen in the history of the pageant to do so.
Securing accommodation is perhaps just one of the many reasons Indians prefer to keep their relationship status ambiguous. But the social stigma attached to live-in relationships and the questions it throws up can be quite difficult to deal with. So much so some like a prominent bilingual author living in one of the country's metros and who's only recently released his latest novel, insists on introducing his partner as 'my friend...' shunning all possibilities of having a conversation with him on the matter.
The sad truth is that much as we like to believe that we've opened up as a society, we are often reminded that we in fact, haven't.
Urmila Pullat a law student in Pune who along with her classmates has been responsible for drafting a bill to 'define, recognise and regulate live-in relationship between two adult individuals' tells me that though her parents were appreciative of her efforts, they hoped that she wasn't planning to 'do something like this'. And even though Pullat wants to ideally move in with her boyfriend before getting married, she admits that chances of that happening are remote. Both their parents live in Bangalore so it'd be a sacrilege, she says, if she moves back to the city and decides to rent out an apartment to stay with her boyfriend.
The bill that was part of an assignment was drafted by Pullat and her classmates Deepti Ravishanker, Latika Deo, Sandhya Ramaswamy, Priyanka Sohoni and Kriti Gahlout under the guidance of their teacher Sathya Narayan.
Pullat says that the idea of the bill was to be able to give a legal status for live-in relationships. "There is a need for a law," she says, "Especially in the context of non-heterosexual relationships."
She points out that insecurity is one of the greatest challenges that a live-in relationship poses. "There have been many cases where one of the partners leaves the other for a more conventional relationship. It is bad enough in a heterosexual relationship; in gay and transgender relationships it gets worse when one partner decides to go back (to a conventional set-up)." she says.
A well-known case in point involving a heterosexual couple is Alok Kumar vs State & Anr where Kumar's live-in partner dragged him to court for not marrying her in which the Delhi High Court ruled: ''Live-in relationship' is a walk-in and walk-out relationship. There are no strings attached to this relationship, neither this relationship creates any legal bond between the parties. It is a contract of living together which is renewed every day by the parties and can be terminated by either of the parties without consent of the other party and one party can walk out at will at any time.'
Those in similar relationships were warned: 'Those, who do not want to enter into this kind of relationship of walk-in and walk-out, they enter into a relationship of marriage, where the bond between the parties has legal implications and obligations and cannot be broken by either party at will. Thus, people who chose to have 'live-in relationship' cannot complain of infidelity or immorality as live-in relationships' are also known to have been between married man and unmarried woman or between a married woman and an unmarried man'.
While in two separate and subsequent verdicts -- Chanmuniya versus Virendra Kumar Singh Kushwaha (Supreme Court) and Vineeta Devi vs Unknown (Jharkhand High Court) -- the courts upheld the fact that women in a live-in relationship can claim maintenance under Section 125 in The Code Of Criminal Procedure that deals with 'maintenance of wives, children and parents', a bill that defines the parameters of the arrangement and deals with issues of inheritance is missing.
As Pullat points out to me there is indeed no legal validation for a common law partner.
While the live-in relationships bill that Urmila Pullat and her other law school colleagues have drafted is itself progressive in most parts, some elements in it continue to be conservative in. For instance it does not recognise conjugal relationship between lineal ancestors and descendents, siblings and step siblings and tows the line drawn by the Hindu Marriage Act which prohibits marriage within the family.
However it does address all situations that could arise from a live-in relationship, including the guardianship of children that are born out of such an arrangement.
While in the course of my research I couldn't come across a cohabiting couple with children, it did seem that most couples who opt for live-ins see it as an interim arrangement that eventually leads to marriage.
"Of course you never know where life takes you but the fact that you've moved in with someone means you see a very strong possibility of a future with him," Aditi Dutta says, "You move in with him because you want to get to know the person better."
Dutta lives in Hyderabad with her boyfriend, an IT professional and says that the decision to move in was taken after they'd been in a relationship for about three years and thought it'd be a good time to 'take it to the next level'.
When I brought this up with the mother of one of my female friends, she argued that she's never understood the 'next level' business. "What is this next level?" she barked at me over the phone, "If you know someone for three years, you should be a terrible judge of character to want to move in just to 'get to know' the person. These English movies and serials put these stupid ideas in your heads." (At this point I imagined the old lady waving her finger in the air accusingly. But that's another story)
When Pulkit Mallya and Suhasini Nandi decided to move in it was (as Mallya calls it) 'a natural progression'. "We weren't dating for a very long time before we moved in. So in our case we were really hoping to get to know each other better," Mallya, a Bangalore-based entrepreneur, tells me.
"But besides that, it was a more practical thing to do. Our expenses have since then reduced considerably. And the good part is we get to spend more time with each other," he says.
While his parents have no clue what their son is up to, her mother is aware of the arrangement and though she may not necessarily approve of it, she hasn't objected to it either. Their house owner believes they are married and to reduce the tensions both prefer to live behind a curtain of white lies rather than come out clean and take on the world.
It is, as Mallya would agree, practical.
"The question of societal pressure comes in if you insist on telling the truth. In our case, we are in one city, my parents in another and his parents in yet another," says Sucheta Tripathi who likes to think that no one needs to know more than what they must.
When I asked them about the issues they face while cohabiting, the ones they listed weren't very different from those that married couples face -- he throws his socks around, she takes too long to get ready; she can't cook; he can't clean; he doesn't make attempts to understand me; neither does she.
Sadia Raval who's counselled live-in couples says that issues such as not being able to understand each other, not being able to change and adjust and suspicion top the list adding that most of them are keen to work out the issues and move on rather than throw in the towel.
Pulkit Mallya agrees. He tells me they were dating for less than six months before they decided to move in together. This meant adjusting with each other's quirks and learning to cope with them. "It isn't easy (living-in)," he admits, "But it really does act as a great training ground for marriage."
Mallya couldn't be more correct. No matter how many hours you've spent with your loved one in cafes, bars, movie halls and hotel rooms on the sly, there is probably nothing that can prepare you for the shock of seeing the person in your space 24/7.
Aditi Dutta recollects the horrified look on her partner's face on the day she moved in. "I think he was a little overwhelmed looking at the amount of clothes and shoes I had," she giggles. "And we'd known each other for three years by then!"
Dutta also admits that moving in with her boyfriend revealed a side of him she hadn't seen either. She always knew he was very particular about things and places where they should be left but she certainly wasn't ready when one morning he lost his cool because she'd left her shampoo in place of his shower gel.
"It did take me by surprise then. Eventually when he cooled down we talked it over," she says. "Adjusting is an ongoing process. Sometimes it's you (who has to compromise) at other times it's him."
Sucheta Tripathi likes to believe that a part of our inhibition 'perhaps comes from the fact that our generation has seen a lot more relationships failing than the previous one. So sometimes we like to take things slowly, one step at a time'.
"Those who want out get out even after marriage," she says. "It boils down to whether you want to remain committed or not."
The argument against the 'next level' that my friend's mother threw at me wasn't something I hadn't heard before. My (now) fiance's mother had asked her the very same question when she'd announced her decision to move in with me. We rubbed our necks, put our hands in our pockets, hoed and hummed but didn't spell out the real reason for moving in, partly because we were certain it'd lead to other unrelated arguments. So like all families, we all decided to push the matter under the carpet.
But here's the thing, whether we like to admit it or not, the fact is that most of us choosing to cohabit do it not so much because it seems to be 'the right thing to do' but more so because if we weren't living together, chances are that we'd probably never get to see each other, except on weekends (perhaps) and go broke paying restaurant and hotel bills.
With the lifestyles we lead, the work hours we keep and the rising costs of living, I suspect live-in relationships won't be restricted to the so-called 'freethinking', anti-establishment individuals as the traditional perception has been. If at all, those getting into it will be the practical minded folks who see it as an arrangement till such a time that both are emotionally and financially ready for marriage.
It isn't that we don't believe in happily-ever-afters; if at all that's the one thing that keeps us going. It's just that we'd rather have a trial run first.
Names changed upon request
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