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The H4 virus

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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 Jaya Menon

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.

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) Source: Indian Express

NRI Divorce 2006-2010