Oliver Balch and his book
I’ve come to the Kolkata court to learn about divorce. As with a good watch, a spouse is traditionally regarded in India as something you keep for life. In many circles, the prospect of breaking the marriage covenant remains taboo. New India is challenging that, with legalised separations doubling over the last decade. That doesn’t mean the country is overrun with divorcees. Far from it. Unsuccessful marriages remain barely above one per cent — roughly forty times lower than in the United States. Yet the trend is upwards and I’m interested to know why.
Kolkata, I’d chosen on a whim. The one-time capital of the British Raj is New India’s ailing aunt. Though still admired for her intellect and pristine manners, the years have not been kind to her. Long back now lies her golden youth, when the world’s trading ships would rush to her quaysides and music would fill her streets. No wars are fought for control of her heart any more. Her dogged citizens have enough battles just staying afloat.
In New India, most cities run. The smaller ones might walk. Only a few hobble. Kolkata is a hobbler. Of course, she’s very proper about it. Her walking stick has a handle of herringbone and is crafted from a shaft of finest Indian willow. But the creaks in her knee and her shuffling step are unmistakable… Of all New India’s metropolises, it is here in poet Rabindranath Tagore’s birthplace that tradition is best loved. In Kolkata, more than elsewhere, marriage remains an institution, a bulwark against the tide of modern mores.
The sound of high-pitched shouting startles me. A young woman storms out of the room in the middle of the corridor. She slams the door behind her. Gesticulating wildly and spitting out oaths in Bengali, she wakes the court from its mid-morning slumbers. In a torrent of noise, she disappears down the stairs. Scurrying after her is an older lady, who, from her facial similarity and evident concern, I take to be the shouting woman’s mother. I walk across the room where the outburst occurred. “Court Counsellor”, says a small sign on the wall. Not a successful session then…
Shortly after the woman’s outburst, a group of plaintiffs and their lawyers emerge from Court No. 1… The defendant, a well-built man of around thirty, is in animated conversation with his lawyer. They stop close to me. The lawyer lights up a cigarette.
I approach and explain that I’m investigating divorce in India. Both men raise their eyebrows. Do they have time to answer a few questions? To my surprise, they readily agree. The defendant, who is dressed in jeans and wears an expensive watch, explains that the judge has ordered him and his wife to meet with the court counsellor. If mediation fails, a divorce will be granted. He appears happy at the prospect. I pry as to why. She’s a lesbian, he responds flatly. His lawyer is evidently entertained at the look of surprise on my face. She wanted a triangular relationship, the bespectacled advocate adds, a hint of perverted derision in his voice. His client, naturally, declined. The two head off, smirking.
Stationed a little further up the corridor stands his estranged wife. She is also talking with her lawyers. Her mood is less jovial. Separated for the last two years, her husband pays nothing towards the upkeep of her four-year-old daughter… She merely wants what is owed to her, she tells me. Her estranged spouse swore before the judge that he works as a street pedlar. The idea is risible, she says, citing his various business interests. I mention the allegations he made about her sexuality.
Her lawyer interjects. “False,” he insists, “totally false.” She left because he used to beat her… “What can I say? Men are beasts.”…
The jobbing barrister whom I’d followed from the other court rushes off... India’s divorce rate is at least keeping a small quarter of the legal fraternity busy. His adversary dawdles a while at the door. I ask if I might be able to speak with her client briefly, indicating the younger lady at her side. “You mean me,” she responds abruptly. “I’m the client.” I apologise, aware all of a sudden that both women are in fact barristers.
“Asha Gutgutia,” the middle-aged barrister says, proffering a hand and a firm shake…
We talk in general about her workload. She is seeing many more maintenance and non-compatibility cases these days. She puts the trend down to the empowerment of women and the increase in female education and literacy. There’s another, related issue too. Put simply, Indian women are becoming less patient. Levels of “mutual understanding” between men and women are decreasing…
“Today, women are increasingly allowed to work. But their husbands still want them to be the usual housewives. It’s impossible to have the two extremes. My generation — those women aged from thirty to forty-five, say — find themselves in a transition period. They are not able to live in the old systems or values, yet they can’t obtain their new demands either.”
“And is that your own experience?” I ask hesitantly…
Evidently a rare exception, Mrs Gutgutia spends the next thirty minutes describing the breakdown of her marriage in great detail. It hadn’t been her idea to get married in the first place, she states upfront. She was content building a career and a reputation for herself as a trial lawyer. Her parents pressured her into it... Her husband didn’t like the fact she continued working. He wanted control over her life, she says. “In his mind, I’m not equal to him.”… Her theory is that deep down he resents the fact that she is more successful than him.
Then there’s the small matter of S.E.X. She spells out the word letter by letter in preference to verbalising it. She hints at an incompatibility. He is more indirect. He’s accused her of having an “illicit relationship.” It’s a lie, she says…
I ask about other cases she has dealt with. She tells about the husband who tricked his illiterate wife to unknowingly thumbprint her own divorce papers. Another man forced his wife into kinky sex… Not all her clients have been women. She once represented a man whose wife had eloped with her lover, taking all the papers for their house and investments with her.
A number of the stories are coloured by domestic violence. Wife-beating is not uncommon in modern India. A third of adult women under fifty have experienced spousal abuse, according to official figures. In Bihar, the figure climbs to three-fifths. Not that such violence automatically translates into divorce proceedings. Most incidents are never reported...
I am reluctant to leave Kolkata before confirming one nagging question. Marriages fall apart for all sorts of reasons… Back in her office she [Mrs Gutgutia] had talked of a change in attitude among younger women. “Less patience” was how she’d put it. Before, women trapped in an unhappy marriage would suffer in silence. Now a brave few are saying “enough”. They want out.
It certainly sounds feasible. I wonder if it could be true.