Separated, not split
Leela Savlani is an executive chef in a famous restaurant chain. Her 20-year-old marriage – with two children – collapsed last year, thanks to the violent nature of her husband. “He would beat up the kids whenever he was in a foul mood and use objectionable language all the time,” she says, “After he beat my daughter till she passed out, I applied for a divorce. But he made such an impasse about the custody of the kids that I finally turned the tables on him by refusing to go through with the divorce. My minor kids don’t want to stay with him, as they are mortally scared of his slaps and kicks. I applied for company accommodation and got a one-bedroom flat as this was my right. We now live in this tiny but peaceful home. I send the kids to school and my mother brings them back and looks after them till I can take them home. My husband is so angry that he does not phone or see us – and this suits us well. I make enough money to provide for the kids and don’t intend to marry again. So, no legal divorce – but a state of divorce is what I have chosen.”
Leela is not the only young, successful career woman to choose a ‘divorced marriage’ because of her messy relationship with her husband. All over India, wives and mothers in huge numbers are deliberately choosing this method of ending their marriages to save themselves the heartbreak of long-drawn-out and extremely expensive legal battles or arbitration proceedings. “A contested divorce or even an arbitration case can last for years,” says Minoti Arya, a doctor, “Court fees, documentation, lawyers’ and solicitors’ charges add up to lakhs. It is better to have the marriage alive – but live separately so that financial rights of the wife and children are maintained. This situation is best if neither party wants to remarry. I thought long before I decided not to divorce my husband, though I could prove his constant infidelity. As a result, I have a right to the home we both bought together. We divided it into half and he occupies a smaller part because my son lives with me. My husband meets him and pays for his education, transport and hobbies or activities. They share a cordial relationship and in time, I also want to be friendly to him and his mistresses, as I don’t think hatred is good for me.”
“Letting the marriage live on is a good option when a couple is faced with money or property problems, kids’ resistance or relatives refusing to co-operate,” says Madhu Iyer, a marriage counsellor, “Even when the breakdown is permanent, leaving things as they are sometimes sorts out matters. A couple can decide to live apart, but be available to their children, as needed, and share expenses for them. They can hold property jointly and see that both are adequately provided for. But this can happen only in two cases – firstly, if the divorce-seeking couple are friends and have goodwill for each other and, secondly, if they have one or more trusted persons who can mediate between them and keep the peace going. Also, there should be no intent in either party to cheat the other party or to transfer rights to property to third parties. Amicable live-apart arrangements work well when there is forgiveness and goodwill between husband and wife. Counsellors often support couples in this situation when both parties recognise each other’s legal rights and don’t work to deprive the other of money, convenience or property. This probably is also better for the children for whom access to both parents is important.”
Some famous couples have set examples for young couples who wish to end their marriages yet avoid the hassles of court cases or custody battles which result in lifelong enmity and much heartburn between families. One such famous couple is Rajesh Khanna and Dimple Kapadia, who separated when the superstar allegedly indulged in many extramarital affairs. Dimple has said in many interviews earlier that she had to consider the interests of her two daughters and make the decision to divorce or not. She chose to continue with the dead marriage and saved all of Khanna’s property, fighting his income tax cases, including all the jewellery and the Ashirvad bungalow in Bandra, Mumbai, for her daughters, whom she believed to be the legal heirs to their father’s wealth. Dimple and Rajesh never married a second time and Twinkle and Rinke had the benefit of being in touch with both parents though Dimple suffered much pain because of the broken marriage.
Rakhi and Gulzar have said that their daughter Meghna could not accept their break-up and, therefore, they never got a divorce. Till date, they live separately, both unmarried but they keep in touch and support each other because of the bond of their daughter. Similarly, Kareena and Karishma Kapoor have been instrumental in preventing a divorce between Randhir and Babita, who live separately but are on amicable terms. Neither the daughters, nor the filmstar parents interfere in each other’s lives, but in times of stress, they help and support each other.
Even otherwise, say lawyers who specialise in matrimonial law, it is not advisable for a wife to move out of the marital home, as this can lead to loss of residence and maintenance. As per law, she has the right to live in the home and to be maintained by the husband. In case he wants a divorce, she can ask for decent settlement terms. Of course, many couples choose to stay in a fake marriage for medical or pension benefits, too. Lawyers also warn often that staying in a marriage can bring unexpected financial problems from an unscrupulous partner, who can create debts and ruin the other’s financial security and, in worse cases, claim part of the estranged partner’s wealth.
In spite of these pitfalls, an increasing number of couples avoid legal divorces. It could be to save the children from the ugly scenes of a divorce; to take advantage of the laws of division of wealth and inheritance or simply to avoid gossip in the society in which they move and mix.