The Kamasutra is perhaps the most famous poem ever written on the finer points of lovemaking, and the erotic sculptures at Khajuraho still startle even forward-thinking Westerners today. The Indian gods copulate blissfully across the pages of the great epics, and every Indian schoolchild knows the love story of the god Krishna and the beautiful milkmaid Radha.
As described in the ancient religious texts, their lovemaking was so intense that Radha's jewelry "was torn from her body . . . . the chignon dislocated . . . . she nearly lost her reason and could not distinguish day from night."
But this greatest of Hindu love stories also happens to be about an adulterous affair, not marriage. Radha eventually went back to her husband. Krishna later married Rukmini, more for duty than love, and then turned his attention to fighting demons.
Historically, devotion and duty have been more important than passion in Indian marriage, at least among the middle class. Yet middle-class parents are well aware of the lust that can rage between a young bride and bridegroom who have never had sex before.
So parents often make sure that the bride spends some time away from her husband during the first year of marriage, usually in long visits to her family.
Mahatma Gandhi, the revered leader of India's independence movement, says in his autobiography that it was this custom that helped keep him from drowning in sexual obsession during the first year of his marriage, when he and his wife were 13.
Every few months his wife's parents would summon her home. "Such calls were very unwelcome in those days," Gandhi wrote, "but they saved us both."
Theoretically, in the first phase of an arranged marriage in India a woman has a tremendously seductive power over her husband. When sexual passion cools as expected, the couple supposedly settle down to the everyday business of life.
"Love is fine," says Usha Seth, a 41-year-old, well-to-do New Delhi housewife who agreed to marry the man her parents selected three days after she met him. "But after the first few years, that's when you realize how important it is that a person is considerate and kind."
It is impossible to know how prevalent this kind of experience is, but most young Indian women seem to believe in it.
Of course, it doesn't always work out so idyllically. "Our girls are not prepared for marriage," says Subhadra Butalia, whose work to stop bride burnings in New Delhi has convinced her that most arranged marriages are unhappy, if not tragic. "In many cases the girls don't even know what's going to happen on their wedding night."
Some individual cases are particularly depressing. Shobha is 31, with advanced degrees in political science and sociology. She has agreed to talk about her marriage on the condition that her real name not be used.
She has an excellent management job and is from a conservative, business-class family. She was never allowed to date. Her mother died a few years ago.
When Shobha turned 30, her father felt she should marry. At his insistence she saw about 15 prospects, but nothing clicked. Then last summer a 28-year-old computer engineer dropped by her office.
"He knew about me through my relatives," she says. "We talked for half an hour. The next day he sent his parents to my house, and they conveyed the message that he wanted to marry me. But I found him to be such a boy. I never took him seriously, and I refused on the grounds that he was too young.
"But then my father said he was tired, his health wasn't good, he was getting desperate and he warned that he might not live to see me married. Then my sisters said that if I kept rejecting boys, nobody would marry me."
Shobha finally agreed. "As long as my mother was alive, I never thought of getting married," she says. "But after she died, I felt I had nobody to fall back on."
The wedding was last December. Her father, a retired businessman, paid the equivalent of $10,000 for it and the dowry, which included a refrigerator, television set, double bed, jewelry, clothes, crockery and cash.
This is a fortune in India, representing several years of salary, but it is also an average price for a middle-class wedding.
The problems started on the honeymoon. "We didn't indulge in sex," Shobha says. She told him she missed her mother and asked him not to touch her.
They both felt like strangers, and tried to get to know each other during sightseeing trips and dinners. When they returned, Shobha moved in with her husband's family, as is the custom.
Things haven't been going well. "I have not been able to accept him as my own yet," she says. "I do not feel comfortable with his family. My taste and my thinking and my ideas are totally different from my husband's."
The marriage has been consummated, although Shobha says her husband has been impotent much of the time, and that she finds sex with him "dirty." But divorce is out of the question.