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Swati Chauhan, 24, and boyfriend Sanjay Austa, 34 in their New Delhi apartment.

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.

The changing urban lifestyles have galvanized many self-styled custodians of Indian culture. Hindu vigilante groups frequently attack young couples spending time together on beaches, in parks and in pubs. Stores selling Valentine’s Day cards and gifts are vandalized every year. Some Christian groups also have criticized the new lifestyle engendered by late working hours at call centers.

Meanwhile, many of the old mores prevail in rural India. Young couples who fall in love, defying strict caste codes and their parents’ views, often face social ostracism and even honor killings.

Singh, like many young Indian couples, kept her living arrangement from her parents because she feared they would disapprove. But her father found out when he visited her in New Delhi.

“When he saw our photographs on the wall, my father sat down and asked for water. He drank three glasses of water that day in silence,” Singh said, laughing. “Now my parents know, but they prefer not to discuss it with me. But when my relatives ask, I lie and pretend to be living alone. I don’t want them to taunt my parents about it.”

Swati Chauhan, a 24-year-old dance teacher, broke the news in a different way. She told her parents that she was interested in someone and wanted to get engaged, then let them discover the truth over the next few months.

“It was safer to introduce my boyfriend to my parents as the man who wants to marry me, rather than as the man I am living with,” said Chauhan, a migrant from the mountainous northern town of Simla.

Moving to New Delhi allowed the couple to live by a different code and escape prying relatives.

“The city gives us the freedom and anonymity that would be impossible back in our small home town,” said Sanjay Austa, 34, Chauhan’s partner and a photographer working on a book about Indian weddings.

Despite the dramatic shift in attitudes among young Indians, their faith in the age-old tradition of arranged marriages endures. A 2009 survey by the marriage Web site Bharatmatrimony.com found that about 60 percent of urban Indian women ages 20 to 30 said they preferred that their parents arrange their marriages.

“Living-in is not replacing marriage in India,” said Desai, the social commentator. “In many cases, the young are experimenting with freedom and fun before they agree to arranged domesticity as their eventual destiny.”

 Via Washington Post

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