The H4 virus

Via IndianExpress.com
Three weeks to find a partner, 45 days to get rid of
her. When it comes to shotgun IT/NRI weddings, the numbers don’t add up
anymore, says

IT was a grand
ceremony. Sindhu Rajagopal was as excited about marrying a software
professional as her Thanjavur-based parents. The groom, Kamesh Kannan,
was the ideal package—a Silicon Valley-based consultant, and an IIT
graduate with a master’s degree from an American university. In five
years, Kamesh had started a consultancy firm that had nine branches
across the US and one in Chennai.

Having
gone to Virginia with her husband (an H1B visa-holder) on a dependant
H4 visa, Sindhu’s American dream soon began to sour. She did little
except cook, clean and later, look after her daughter. Her weekends
were equally tedious.

A fortnight ago,
after five years of marriage, 30-year-old Sindhu arrived in Chennai.
Kannan’s parents took possession of her visa and she now lives with her
parents. Back in Virginia, Kannan has initiated divorce proceedings.
Once Sindhu signs the legal notice, Kannan will have his divorce decree
in just 45 days.

This
is not an unusual story, or the stuff of low-budget, desi crossover
films. Speedy arranged marriages between NRI men and India-based women
are becoming more short-lived than ever before. In NRI lingo, they’re
known as ‘21-day weddings’—so called because everything takes place
within the groom’s three-week holiday. The first week, the prospective
boy and girl are introduced, they get to know each other the week
after, and the wedding takes place in the third. No space for any
intensive digging.

The
result: ‘‘There is an alarming rise in divorces among US-based IT
professionals,’’ says Menaka Rajendran, a lawyer with Smith White
Sharma & Halpern, a US-based immigration law firm. Rajendran, head
of the company’s Chennai office, claims more than 50 per cent of 21-day
marriages solemnized in Punjab, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and
Kerala over the last three years have broken down, some within a week.

 
More than 50 per cent of 21-day marriages solemnized in Punjab,
Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala over the last three
years have broken down, some within a week

Every
year, 65,000 (the prescribed quota for India) H1B visa holders leave
for the US. Of this, more than 40 per cent are software professionals.
Rajendran says her Chennai office gets at least one call a day from
US-based IT professionals’ wives. After opening its Chennai office in
1999, the law firm recently set up branches in Mumbai and Ahmedabad
after receiving numerous calls from these cities.

‘‘According
to US Immigration Laws, H4 dependant-visa holders are not eligible for
a social security number. Without that, these women cannot even open a
bank account, let alone get a driver’s licence or work permit,’’ says
Rajendran. According to US laws, divorce proceedings are quick and
after a divorce comes through, there’s little any law firm can do. Due
to a backlog of cases, judges in US courts (district counties, as they
are called) have no time to even check the veracity of the signatures
of the women on divorce petitions.

‘‘Few
women even know that their H4 visa could be converted to H1 in just 90
days. They can look for a job, start working and be more independent
and mobile,’’ says Rajendran. Most of the women who are back in India
believe they could never have worked in the US.

Lately,
Smith White Sharma & Halpern has taken to organising programmes
across the country to educate prospective brides. ‘‘We found that the
Russian and Japanese consulates have counsellors who guide first-time
travellers and find out their future status. But the US consulate here
and the Indian embassy in the US don’t provide counselling sessions to
visa applicants,’’ says K Aishwarya, a second-year MA student of the
MOP Vaishnov College for Women in Chennai, who recently organised a
two-day awareness programme in her college. ‘‘We have heard of so many
marriages of our friends and their friends breaking up. It is a typical
scenario now,’’ she says. The college also launched an intensive media
campaign to publicise the issue in local Tamil magazines and television
channels.

Thirty-two-year-old
Nisha Kapoor from Haryana was married to Manish Kapoor, an
Atlanta-based accountant, but she never managed to get to the US. Even
after the birth of their two children, her husband came up with various
reasons to dissuade her and her parents from visiting him. Since they
had not registered the marriage in India, legally they were unmarried.
After seven years, Nisha, a BSc graduate, found herself divorced.
Worse, she lost custody of her older daughter. Nisha had willingly
signed the papers for ‘dissolution of marriage’ under the ‘mutual
consent’ slot, without even reading them.

In
some cases, the woman takes the call. Twenty-three-year-old Vani Reddy,
the daughter of a wealthy businessman in Hyderabad, walked out on her
husband and flew down from the US a week after their marriage because
‘‘she was disgusted with his lifestyle’’. Her husband is waiting for
his easy, 45-day divorce to come through.

  A study conducted in six popular women’s
colleges in Chennai found that while 92 per cent of the students would
love a US-based husband, only three students knew about the dependant
visa status and its consequences

As
parents frantically hunt for IT/NRI grooms, young women continue to
fall into the H4 trap. ‘‘In a study we conducted in six popular women’s
colleges in Chennai, we found that while 92 per cent of the students
said they wanted arranged marriages and would love a US-settled
husband, only three students knew about the dependant visa status and
its consequences,’’ says Aishwarya.

In
the late ’90s, Georgia-based lawyer Paddy Sharma converted her house in
Atlanta into an asylum for divorced women of South Asian descent called
Raksha. Now she has a difficult time coping with calls pouring in from
the US and India. ‘‘Every single day, I get calls. I cannot believe
there are so many women all over the US who are ignorant about their
status as immigrants in this country,’’ she says.

Back
in India, Sindhu visits her lawyer, urging her to stop Kannan from
going ahead with the divorce proceedings. Nisha is almost on the verge
of getting custody of her son after fighting legal battles for almost
two years. Meanwhile, many prospective brides are waiting have their go
at a 21-day wedding.

(Some of the names have been changed on request)

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