—Carin Fisher, German-American lawyer who moved to New Delhi about a year ago
"I was shocked when I first came back to India some years ago. Everybody seemed to be having extramarital affairs. You don't do that in the West. You have serial monogamy. But I have changed my mind. If there is a Krishna in men, there is a Radha in women. Why can't I be both: a wife and Radha? We are born with it. Men are doing their Krishna thing, aren't they?"
—Bina Ramani, socialite
Well, blame it on the gods. Or, thank them. Adultery is alive and flourishing in India. So what's new? After all, adultery is as old as the gods, if not older in the land of the Kamasutra, multiple spouses and frolicking deities. Where traditionally, and in some communities, the pleasures of the flesh (like meat) are consumed outside the hallowed spaces of the home—and the conjugal bed. To put it in today's parlance, men are like that only. And now, women are getting to be like that only too.
Adultery 2003 is really about women taking the lead. It's also about adultery going middle class, to small-town India, going commonplace, even going boring. Dangerous liaisons used to be for the aristos and the plebs. Those in between, the middle classes, were tethered by moral chastity belts—only their fantasies could roam freely. Or, it was all within the family, the extramarital dalliances, that is. The scarlet letter is now fading fast: stigma is getting passe and guilt for an increasing number is no more than a twitch.
We are probably more adulterous now than ever before with women catching up with the men on the adultery stakes. Says D. Narayana Reddy, a sexologist and marital therapist in Chennai, "I have been practicing since 1982. In those days, my women clients would say a strict no to anything outside marriage. By 1992, the attitude was 'What's wrong if I did it?'. By 2002, they were daring to explore."
Helping the cause of adultery are the advances in technology. You can meet a potential lover in your age group, even match common 'interests', in the cold anonymity of the busy country-and-city-specific Internet chat room. Once the going gets hot, you can even fix up a date and meet each other in the flesh. sms too has been a liberating influence. Its furtive power on the ubiquitous mobile phones allows you to conduct affairs on the sly. (A Delhi-based 'human rights' group, in fact, noisily protested in the capital last year saying sms was "against Indian etiquette and culture and is the cause of numerous divorces in the recent past"!)
A few years ago, there were just cyber-sex widows. Now, you can spot more cyber-sex widowers. An increasing number of women are cruising Internet's highways, definitely not blind to all those pop-up ads offering means to inflate male assets. Many are beginning to compare the man snoring beside them in bed to the supermen in the popular media. Says G.I. Pattabhiraman, zonal manager of Globe Detective Agency in Chennai that gets about 18 cases of suspicious spouses snooping on each other every month, "Earlier, blank calls received at home would make a spouse suspicious. But these days, women have cellphones with prepaid cards. Internet chatting is also heavy in cyber cafes which women frequent in the quiet afternoon hours."
Blame it on the Internet and SMS. A Delhi-based human rights gro up actually protested against SMS saying it was the cause of divorces in the recent past.
The reason why Kunwar Vikram Singh, managing director of Delhi-based detective agency Lancers who claims to be the only 'cyber detective' in the country, has lots of husbands coming to him wanting access to their wives' e-mail accounts. "They are mostly in the 40s age group, and most of these women are housewives." Like Lalitha Jaikrishnan, a 45-year-old Delhi-based homemaker with two children, who regularly trawls the chatrooms for young men, sets up rendezvous at a cafeteria in the India Habitat Centre and has affairs on the sly. "My life has changed," she says. "I feel revitalised. The sex is great, and I'm learning a lot of new things in bed too."
Cyberia is also helping bored, unhappy housewives get in touch with old lovers and childhood sweethearts, an interesting phenomenon driving middle-class adultery. Earlier, this remained a fantasy; today it is being translated into reality. As in the case of 38-year-old Chennai businessman V. Prakash. Growing up in Bhubaneshwar, in a conservative Tamil Brahmin family, he was attracted to a girl in school. She seemed interested too. Both were painfully shy and couldn't muster up the courage to do anything beyond the mutual attraction. Prakash opted for an arranged marriage, moved to Chennai, and was living "happily" with three children. Until, the girl, who now lives in Chicago with her software engineer husband and two kids, caught up with him through a school alumni bulletin board on the net. A few e-mails later, she sent him a message that openly hinted she wanted to meet him. "She says her husband's done nothing wrong to her and takes care of the family, but she's bored because she thinks he doesn't find enough time for her," says Prakash. Last winter, the girl flew down to Chennai to meet him and told him, "I wish we had got married. Since it's too late, can we have a relationship instead? Don't ditch me because you are the only other man I am attracted to. I don't have the courage or the inclination to hunt around for men at my age." Prakash confesses to slowly falling for her, and shutting himself up in his study room late at night to chat with her. "I am guilt-ridden as hell because I have no family problems," he says. "But she reminds me of the attractive girl I could have got hitched to, and she doesn't seem to have any qualms about the relationship."
A situation fortysomething Delhi-based senior police officer Ravi Shankar Tiwari too finds himself in. Like Prakash a married man with three children, last year he bumped into Poonam, an old flame from his conservative UP village, now settled with her businessman-husband and two children. "She invited me over to her home in Delhi and wistfully remembered the times we were attracted to each other, but couldn't do anything about it. Then she said we could have a secret affair. She has even told her 17-year-old daughter that I am a good friend of hers and will keep coming home," says Tiwari. He is quite amazed at how Poonam has changed into "an assertive, don't-care-a-damn" woman who keeps telling him: "It's just one life, Ravi. Let's make up for lost time!"
Naturally, in most cases, the old lovers, usually in their early middle age, keep their warmed-over affair a secret.
Forget the big city, people are swapping partners even in small towns like Asansol.
Sreelatha Kumar, an academic in her early 40s, lives in Delhi and is eloquent about her "delicious secret"."My marriage is good and stable. We still have conjugal relations. But there is no emotional intimacy, just respect. I, however, don't want sex without emotion, and that is all I got. In my marriage, we have sex without kissing." With her lover, it is different: they can finish each other's sentences. And the sex is good, "the romance intact". "An old flame is a powerful thing," she says. "It is an illusion, but you need it. It is about getting back your own youth.Because you are not in love with him but with the idea of you being in love with him. And you can't separate it from the past." The two had met in college, and shared a love of poetry. Since they belonged to two different religions, marriage wasn't an option. Twenty years later, they met at an airport, their eyes locked, and that was it. They meet in hotels, or snatch brief holidays together. And, yes, they kiss.
Bored housewives apart, adultery is also a pleasure sport for working couples who live apart. It was a culture shock for a senior professor when he first came to a well-known district-based university in West Bengal. Many married teachers working there were openly having affairs among themselves. "Most of them," he says, "have come from middle-class Calcutta backgrounds, leaving their spouses behind. On weekends, this far-flung campus turns noisy with their wild parties and partners retiring for the night. The students here are more circumspect!"
Not so is middle-class industrial-township India where middle-aged couples have been swinging openly and swapping partners consensually. Like chemist Prantik Dutta, 41, and his wife, Mallika, 37, of Asansol, who hesitantly responded to an ad last year in a mass circulation daily newspaper that read: "Broad-minded couple, looking for similar couples. Please reply to e-mail address below. Only married couples with no inhibitions about nice relationships need apply." "It was scary at first, but at least 40 couples like us responded to the ad. Now we are a group of six couples and growing, having a good time. This way you don't rock your marriage and still have a good time," says Prantik.
That, however, is only a part of the story. Growing adultery has also increased the work pressure in our divorce courts. There are some 5,000 divorces a year in a strongly traditional and patriarchal state like Haryana with a population of 17 million. (This is one of the highest divorce rates in India.) A total of 13,037 divorce cases were filed in Calcutta between January and August last year, nearly double the number filed in all of 1999. "The reappearance of an ex-lover is often a cause for these divorces," says Ranjan Mukherjee, a Calcutta-based lawyer. But it's also largely linked to the married middle-class woman's rising quest for independence outside the confines of a dull marriage. Gitanath Ganguly, executive chairman of the Legal Aid Services of West Bengal, also puts it down to the two Es: Education among women and Ego.
Obviously, there's good reason for spouses to get paranoid. Richard George, Globe Detective's Ahmedabad branch manager, reports seven to eight cases a month of men and women wishing surveillance on their partners. "There has been a sharp increase in such cases in the last three to four years. And rarely do the suspicions of partners go wrong." In Chennai, says Globe's Pattabhiraman: "There has definitely been a rise in women snooping on their husbands. This is because earlier, women were not as assertive. Men have always tried to keep women under their thumb. And women today seem to have extramarital flings mostly to avenge such an attitude."
For the young, it's just a way to de-stress, like popping a Prozac pill. It gives you an instant high.
Marriage counsellors too report the marked increase in couples coming to them for help to enhance their sexual lives. Over the last five years, as many as 50 to 60 per cent of the cases at Suraksha, a family counselling centre in Lucknow, are, according to its secretary Shalini Mathur, related to sexual incompatibility. And if it does not work within the cordon sanitaire of a marriage, they tiptoe outside it.
Brinda Adige, coordinator and secretary at the Bangalore-based Makkala Sahaya Vani, a helpline for children, says she has noticed a 10-15 per cent increase every year of parents deciding to live separately as one of them had developed a relationship outside marriage.The other troubling aspect of such unfettered adultery is a spurt in sexually transmitted diseases among women. Gynaecologist Urvashi Jha of Delhi's Apollo Hospital says she has come across many married women with infections that they got from their husbands who have had extramarital partners—usually much younger ones. "I see many women suffer from psychological traumas and psychosomatic disorders because of this. Their self-image is down. Women between 40-55 are desperate about their bodies and looks."
Sex—rather, good or better sex—is also the biggest trigger for women catching up on men in the adultery game. Marriage counsellors, lawyers, sexologists and gynaecologists concur that the previous constraints on couples are disappearing: they want more and better sex, and are increasingly willing to do something about it. Vijay Nagaswami, Chennai-based psychiatrist and author of Courtship & Marriage: A guide for Indian couples, says that couples expect a healthy sex life and are less inhibited about discussing their sexual experiences. "Sex is no longer a taboo word and more people, particularly women, are more willing to talk sex with their partners."
Adds India's sex guru Prakash Kothari, who heads the department of sexual medicine at the kem Hospital and the GS Medical College in Mumbai: "Thirty years ago, I said most Indian men use their women as sleeping pills. Today Indian women feel their sexual desires are basic human rights, and they need to be respected."
Adultery's also making its way through the conservative heartland of India where women are hooked on the new 'morality' of the desi television soaps. Here, while heavily sindoored and bejewelled women walk around with tulsi plants every morning and every episode has a mandatory pooja, the characters are also stumbling into wrong beds all the time—even in the kosher world of saas-bahu social dynamics. Says Amrita Bhalla, a lecturer of English Literature at Delhi's JMC College: "The fruits of middle-class prosperity and globalisation have transformed our bedrooms: we are electronising and gizmoising them. With TV, DVD and the Internet, you're bringing fantasy right into your bedrooms." Where it is wreaking havoc, nurturing impossible expectations that often lead to the disappointed partners seeking the elusive better deal in other people's arms.
For the middle-aged, boredom or a desire for rejuvenation may drive them to beds other than their own, but why are young married couples straying? For them, it could be a way to de-stress, like popping a Prozac pill. The new work culture entails long hours, often late into the night, and incessant travel. There is also "a general impulse control problem", according to Singh of Lancers: "Today's generation has so many options to choose from in everything, from careers and cuisine to entertainment. When everything is so customised, naturally it extends to sex and partners. You're bound to get bored or less tolerant of your spouse, especially if you were used to dating a lot before marriage."
Nagaswami believes that since sex is often "the only source of intimacy in the midst of a hectic schedule", many marriages suffer when the sex suffers, leading people to seek solace outside the marriage. "When you spend 15-18 hours a day with co-workers and only 6-9 with your spouse, who do you think you're more likely to find sexually attractive, available and arousing? So then follows the inevitable rationalisation: sex is like eating and drinking. So, if I can't cook home food, what's wrong with eating out?" Unfortunately, this doesn't convince anybody and sadly, one more marriage becomes a family court statistic.
Dr Prabhat Sithole, head of the psychiatry department at the csm Medical College in Lucknow, believes young married women can get attracted to men who show empathy towards them."Most relations begin when women find their husbands emotionally inadequate. Later they realise that sex is expected and they willingly give in to gratify their emotional needs," he says.
The young are also more impatient. Hyderabad-based andrologist and impotence expert Sudhakara Krishnamurti says that a decade ago couples would come to him after failing to consummate their marriages for 10 to 15 years. Today wives often drag their husbands into the clinic within the first week of their marriage. "With women being more demanding in the bedroom, it puts a lot of pressure on normal guys," he says. Like Jaya Basu, a Mumbai journalist, who started an affair within a month of her marriage, complaining of a "lousy lover and uninteresting man". Clearly, women are on top.
(Some names have been changed to protect identities.)
Soutik Biswas And Madhu Jain with S. Anand in Chennai, Charubala Annuncio in Mumbai, Mallica Singh in Delhi, Savitri Choudhury in Hyderabad, Sutapa Mukherjee in Lucknow, Debangshu Saha and Manjira Majumdar in Calcutta, B.R. Srikanth in Bangalore and Darshan Desai in Ahmedabad