In changing urban India, more young, unmarried couples choosing to live together

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 25, 2010

NEW DELHI -- About three years ago, Arushi Singh and her boyfriend began looking for an apartment to rent together. They found the perfect place, with a balcony and big lawn, in a posh area of India's capital.

But when they went to sign the lease, the landlady demanded to know whether they were married.

"We said no," recalled Singh, 26, who moved here from another city for her job as a public health advocate. "She frowned and asked for a letter from my father stating that he approves."

The couple walked out. They eventually found another place but this time kept their marital status to themselves.

"Things have changed," Singh said. "Young people today have the ability to make decisions that are not linked to their parents' beliefs."

In a nation that frowns on premarital sex and prefers arranged marriages, more young, unmarried couples are choosing to live together, oftentimes quietly. Though nascent, analysts say, the "live-in" phenomenon is part of India's huge social and economic transition in recent years.

Two-thirds of India's billion-plus people are younger than 35, and many of them are leaving small towns and swarming the booming metropolises for work. Analysts say this demographic is driving changes in social attitudes through its mobility. These young Indians are free not only to choose their careers and how they spend their money, but also to pick whom they love and when they marry.

"They leave behind their roots and families. The old rules do not apply in their new surroundings," said Santosh Desai, a social commentator and columnist who chronicles the aspirations and anxieties of India's urban middle class. "Here in the cities, they are exposed to new professions, financial independence, increased interaction between men and women, late working hours, and new modes of relationships. They are restless and don't want to deny themselves the pleasures of the new world."

Last month, the Supreme Court acknowledged the shift by endorsing the right of unmarried couples to live together. To appeal to conservatives, the three-judge panel hearing a petition against premarital sex invoked Hindu mythology, saying that even the deity Krishna and his companion Radha lived together as lovers.

"Living together is not an offense," the court said. "Living together is a right to life."

The court's remarks gave rise to heated debates on television about changing values in Indian society.

"Such pronouncements will encourage this practice of live-in. It is inconsistent with our culture, where family and parents are central," said Poornima Advani, a lawyer and former chairwoman of the National Commission for Women.

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