Mar 2, 2008

Divorce rate booming in Mumbai, an online matchmaking service for Indian divorcés, debuted last year. Its executives assumed that most clients would come from big, cosmopolitan cities. Instead, in a reflection of how widespread divorce now is, 60 percent of its more than 25,000 customers came from outside India's five largest cities and 36 percent from outside the 20 largest cities.

The Great Indian Wedding is succumbing to the Great Indian Divorce. In courtrooms across the subcontinent, Indians are fighting in growing numbers to separate. Words like "alimony," and "pre-nup" are finding their way into the vocabulary of a society where marriage has traditionally been highly venerated. The annual number of divorce petitions filed in Mumbai has more than doubled since 1990. The Mumbai Family Court is where these petitions are received.

Traditional Indian marriages had little to do with romance. Often but not always arranged, they were mergers between families of similar backgrounds and beliefs, and their principal purpose was baby-spawning. Love was strong but subliminal, expressed not in hand-holding and utterances of "I love you," but in a sense of mutual sacrifice and tolerance.

The divorce boom partly reflects changes that have made it easier to leave marriages everywhere: taboos waning, laws loosening and women gaining financial independence. But there is perhaps another, more amorphous factor behind the change. Conversations with marriage counselors, divorce lawyers, social scientists and couples themselves suggest that, if divorce is rising, it is because of an underlying transformation of love.

Consider the microcosm of Mumbai. Since 1990, around the time that India opened its gates to the world, the annual number of divorce petitions filed in Mumbai has more than doubled to reach 4,138 in 2007, far outpacing population growth, according to data culled for this article from musty, hand-kept records at the city's family court.