At nine every morning, Sana dons her burqa and rides pillion on her father’s scooter. He drops her off at the all-women’s college in Bhopal where she is completing a Master’s degree in English literature. On most days, though, Sana does not attend classes. Once inside the college gates, she throws off her burqa, changes into her “Westerns” (typically low-rise jeans and a fitted t-shirt), and leaves. Her boyfriend of two years, Aftab, picks her up on his motorbike, and they zoom off to spend the day together.

Sana’s hometown is the sleepy capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Situated on the banks of a glorious lake, Bhopal is beautiful. But it is known around the world for something else: an industrial disaster in 1984 that killed 2,259 people. Today however, Bhopal seems much like any other bustling Indian city. Next to sepia Mughal-era ruins are the familiar signs of urban development: glitzy new shopping malls, McDonald's, and bright new coffee shops, such as Bake-n-Shake and Cafe Coffee Day. These are the kinds of places that one can take a boyfriend when cutting class, and they are filled with young couples in love.

Despite the new additions to Bhopal’s landscape, though, it still is not easy to carry on an illicit romance. “I can never let my family find out,” Sana says. “If they do, they will drag me out of college and marry me off.” In fact, she has been betrothed to her cousin, a customary practice in her Muslim family, since she was 16. At the time of her engagement, Sana says, she was too young to understand what was happening. She was still in school and had, until then, led a rather sheltered life. She only realized the implications of her engagement after she began college. But by then, she had “adjusted” to the idea of marrying her cousin. In all these years, she has met him only twice. She is still expected to marry him when she graduates. Of her boyfriend, Aftab, she says, “I would love to marry him, but my family does not agree. He is Shia; I am Sunni. Also, he is unemployed.”

A baby-faced 23-year-old, Aftab graduated college with a degree in mass communications three years ago. He has been looking for a job since then, but he has been unable to find anything that suits. His parents, who work for the local government, want him to try the public sector. Aftab admits that he finds the prospect of a stable but unglamorous government job boring. His passion is music; he has a band, which performs a fusion of rock and Sufi music. Gigs in Bhopal are few and far between, though, so to pass his time, he takes computer classes and hangs out with Sana.

A couple sits along the seafront promenade at dusk in Mumbai's suburbs, May 16, 2012.
A couple sits along the seafront promenade at dusk in Mumbai's suburbs, May 16, 2012.
Vivek Prakash / Reuters

Sana and Aftab’s story is a familiar one. All over India, men and women like them are living through a romantic revolution, much like the one that rocked the United States. In the United States, the revolution came in two stages. First, the development of a market-driven and individualistic economy led to the erosion of traditional social systems. By the late 1800s, young people began embracing the radical idea that love should be the primary reason for marriage. And, as such, it no longer made sense for their families or religious groups to choose their partners. The love revolution, of course, did not upend sexual politics: men and women were still seen as fundamentally different beings, sexually and otherwise. That did not begin to change until the mid-1960s, which was marked by the breakdown of traditional gender roles, rising female independence, the advent of birth control, and more liberated sex lives: the sexual revolution.

In India, as is often the case, everything seems to be happening at once. Thanks to years of urbanization and economic growth, there is more opportunity, more entertainment, and more freedom. Social barriers are weakening, the mingling of sexes is more permissible, and birth control is more widely available. Gender biases are waning, and women are suddenly less dependent on men. Today, almost a third of India’s 480 million jobs are held by women and, over the past decade, urban women’s incomes have doubled. These days, according to IMRB, a market research firm, about 60 percent of urban women say that they are responsible for their own lives.

Across India’s towns, notions of love and longing—of dating and romance—are quickly changing.
But it might all be too much, too quick. The legacy of the gradual, two-step love and sexual revolution, according to Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History, is that, by the time the West got to the more radical second stage, parents’ ability to control their children had already been diminished. But in India, “even though you are getting this very rapid trend of young people wanting relationships,” Coontz told me, “you're also getting much more pushback than Western young women and men have got.” And that is why India’s love and sexual revolution is a much more tense affair.

In hundreds of interviews for my upcoming book, India in Love, I found that, across India’s towns, notions of love and longing—of dating and romance—are quickly changing. In the biggest cities, such as Mumbai and New Delhi, more young people are starting to expect independence, especially when it comes to their personal lives. Their counterparts in smaller ones, such as Bhopal, are fast following suit. A recent study of over 50,000 young people across India conducted by the International Institute for Population Sciences and Population Control found that fully 77 percent of unmarried women and 59 percent of unmarried men said that women should be able to choose their own husbands. At the same time, however, the age-old forces of caste, community, religion, and family expectations are pushing back. Many young people are thus squeezed between tradition and modernity.

Economic woes only compound the problem. The World Bank’s latest World Development Report found that youth unemployment in India was about 50 percent higher than overall unemployment. Many unemployed young people delay their entry into the workforce by extending their years of education. And as a result, the Reserve Bank of India reports, outstanding personal educational loans have more than doubled over the past four years. These days, then, most young people simply cannot afford to take financial control of their own lives—which means frustration, disappointment, and sometimes, suicide. According to Vikram Patel, the lead author of a Lancet study on suicide in India, “young educated Indians from the richer states are killing themselves in numbers that are almost the highest in the world.” And many of those deaths are for love: the state of Tamil Nadu has the highest number of what the police term “love failure suicides,” with over 500 cases reported each year.

A couple take their wedding vows during their wedding ceremony in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, January 23, 2011.
Amit Dave / Reuters
One bright and cool New Year's Eve, I met with Sana and some of her friends at Bhopal’s lakeside. The friends, emblematic of modern young India, wear the latest western fashions and watch MTV and American sitcoms. Most of them are pursuing university degrees, but all of them live with their families. They have dreams, but no concrete plans for the future. As we stand around one friend’s cherry-red motorbike (a gift from his parents), he raps a song by Yo Yo Honey Singh, a popular musician who combines English and Punjabi lyrics. “Your waist sways. Your high heels are to be blamed for it,” he chants. “Your heart slips. Your high heels are to be blamed for it.”

The all-at-once revolution and increasingly bleak economic situation has unmoored many young Indians. Women can wear high heels, go to malls and, like everyone else, dream about the future. But many cannot realize those dreams because they are unable to take responsibility for their own lives. Sana’s older sister had an arranged marriage to a man in Hyderabad. She divorced him after a year when she found out that he was having a longtime affair with another woman. Sana fears that she will end up like her sister, finding herself in a marriage that does not work with a man that she does not love. Still, she tells me, she has no option but to listen to her parents. She has two years left before she finishes college. If she and Aftab—both jobless—marry against their families’ wishes, they will have no way of surviving.

Beside the lake, the day slips by. At long last, Sana returns to college and throws on her burqa as we wait for her father to pick her up. “My future is not in my hands,” she says to me with a shrug. “So at least I should enjoy the present.”


If Sana seems resigned to her fate, other young Indian women have taken their future into their own hands. In a country with entrenched traditions of patriarchy, caste, and family honor, that can be life threatening—usually because the lovers’ own families take matters into their own hands. Reports of “honor-killings” of young lovers, especially those who cross caste or religious lines, have become routine. The risk of honor killings is so dire, especially in more conservative, patriarchic states in northern India, that the government has opened guarded shelters for runaway couples. According to lawyers, the High Court for Punjab and Haryana receives as many as 50 applications per day from couples seeking protection. That is a staggering tenfold rise from the five or six per day applications they got five years ago.

I meet Neha and Mukul at the New Delhi shelter of the Love Commandos, an organization that, according to its popular Facebook page, is dedicated to “helping India’s love birds who want to marry for love.” The group has received national and international attention for its work, and, although its facilities are basic—it can only offer couples access to a crowded rooftop shed—it is flooded with men and women on the run.

A decade ago, around five percent of marriages were not arranged. Today, estimates range from ten percent to 30 percent.
Neha and Mukul are from Mahendragarh, a bucolic city in Haryana, where buffaloes wade in ponds next to a new four-lane highway. It is home to one million people, along with several sparkling schools and engineering colleges, which were built recently to turn the city into the state’s education hub. Neha and Mukul fell in love at the co-ed college they attended. They are from different castes: she is a high-caste Rajput, and he is a Dalit (referred to in British times as an Untouchable). Neha and Mukul mostly kept in touch via cell phone; there were few places they could meet without word getting back to their families. Eventually, it was the cell phone that gave them away. After six months, Neha’s mother found the incriminatory text-messages. Neha’s family told her she must get married to a man of their liking, and threatened to kill her and Mukul if she refused. To save their love and their lives, Mukul and Neha got married in a hasty ceremony and then made their way to the Love Commandos’ shelter in New Delhi.

In a sense, their story shows how little has changed in India. It is still dangerous for love to cross social (or parental) redlines. According to some reports, 94 percent of honor killings are carried out by the woman's family—usually with the support of a local village council, or khap panchayat. Run mostly by elderly men, khap panchayat once dominated political life across northern India, regulating everything from marriage to property disputes. Even today, and despite the fact that India’s supreme court has condemned them as illegal, khap panchayat continue to wield vast influence in many villages across north India. Some have endorsed child marriage and have argued that, in order to reduce rapes of young women, girls should be married by age 16. The head of the council in Baliyan, Mahendra Singh Tikait, has even gone on record saying that “Love marriages are dirty … and only whores can choose their partners.” Khap panchayat might be a vestigial organ—more suited to the country’s rural past—but they persist because some still support their views.

In another sense, though, Neha and Mukul’s story shows that India has changed—at least a little. The country sees more love marriages there than ever. A decade ago, around five percent of marriages were not arranged. Today, estimates range from ten percent (UNICEF) to 30 percent (Shaifali Sandhya, a psychology professor at the Adler School). Mixed marriage, too, is increasingly common. Annually, around 984 Dalits who marry non-Dalits get protection orders in runaway marriages. And about ten establishments in Chandigarh, the capital city of both Haryana and Punjab, conduct mixed-marriage ceremonies. In one temple, an officiant claimed that his facility had solemnized 1,500 mixed marriages over the last five years.

Bejewelled brides attend a mass marriage ceremony in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, November 6, 2011.
Bejewelled brides attend a mass marriage ceremony in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, November 6, 2011.
Amit Dave / Reuters
Neha and Mukul will stay in the rooftop shelter in New Delhi until they figure out what to do next—a dismal honeymoon if there ever was one. Their dream is to scrape together some money to go to Mumbai, which is a popular destination for runaways. Increasingly, young people choose to live in such big cities, where they believe they will be free from family regulations and pressure. Better infrastructure—new road projects, extensive railways, half a dozen new airlines, including several low-cost ones—has made it easier for Neha, Mukul, and those like them to move. They reflect broader national trends: Over the next four decades, 31 villagers will show up in an Indian city every minute—700 million people in all. A 2010 McKinsey Global Institute study predicts that 590 million people, about 40 percent of the country’s population, will live in cities by 2030, and 70 percent of net new employment will occur in cities, up from 30 percent in 2008.

As I speak with Neha and Mukul, I realize that they don’t talk about the past or the families, relatives, and friends they have left behind. All they want to do is talk of tomorrow—of new cities, new lives, and new plans. They are excited to make a fresh start in the India they have seen on television. They brush away my warnings about city living, including the grim job scenario. “We have run away in support of each other," Neha says, clutching Mukul’s hand. “Our parents just want to kill me, kill him, kill everyone. But we love each other, and we won’t let anything stop us.”


In 2013, India is still at the beginning of a major social revolution. New ideas about love and gender are born every day, but old ones are slow to die. In law and in practice, love marriage is creeping across urban India. So, too, is an increasingly liberal attitude towards sexuality. And social structures are changing as young people begin to prize independence. Liberation (sexual and otherwise) is exhilarating. But it also creates new tensions that a society might not be prepared for or equipped to face. As Indian sexual behavior changes, there is bound to be turbulence and conflict—and Sana and Aftab, Neha and Mukul, and couples like them will bear the brunt. Still, despite the strains and broken hearts it may induce in the near term, the revolution could bring more equality between the genders and increased personal freedom in the long run.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now