NEW DELHI — "Girls' Night" started early in this apartment in Vasant Vihar, a wealthy area of New Delhi. Eight women aged 28 to 40, friends of long standing, drink, smoke and talk. A joint is passed around.

Between a bottle of vodka and some Australian wine, there are plates of food on the low table: hummus, chicken tikka and toast with goat cheese, the selection representing a swirl of influences that has surged over the Indian capital in the last decade. Galvanized by infusions of wealth, the city is feverishly transforming day-to-day existence: tastes, appearances, mores and mentalities.

And, yes, sex. The women are talking about it tonight — about the failures of their marriages, their quests for the dream companion, their short-lived adventures. Sometimes they hand their iPhones around to show photos of potential candidates or past lovers. "Not bad!" say the others.

Deepika, unmarried and the youngest of the group, is monopolized by her father's business and doesn't have time for a love life. Sunita, the boldest member of the group, tries to convince her to use Tinder, the social network for local encounters. "Otherwise you can always go onto YouPorn," she says laughing. Neera, a divorcée with a doll-like face, intervenes. "I'm not afraid of being alone. You have to learn how to love yourself," she says as her friends nod in agreement.

Urban Indians are changing. They are freer now than ever before. Bollywood actors dare to kiss on screen, and sexuality is becoming less taboo among the middle classes and elite. On the wings of modernization and Western influence, New Delhi is being breaking out of the stiff confines of conservative morality.

India's Emraan Hashmi and Pakistan's Humaima Malick's locking lips in "Raja Natwarlal" — Photo: UTV Motion Pictures screenshot/Worldcrunch

"Male/female relations have progressed more in the last 10 years than they did during the course of the preceding 3,000 years," writes author Ira Travedi. Sociologist Deepak Mehta agrees, saying, "We are undergoing a process of sexual liberation. But the way a woman views her body has evolved in two opposite directions: On the one hand, it gives her greater freedom. On the other, it increases anxiety."

A cultural paradox

Nationally, India is one of the most difficult cultures in the world for women. Since the December 2012 gang rape of a student in New Delhi, violence against women has become much more publicized. A litany of horrors go on here: domestic violence, sexual abuse, murders for insufficient dowries, slavery, marriage between children.

Delhi, a complex web of 17 million inhabitants, has acquired the sinister moniker as the "capital of rape." These realities weigh on women's minds, split between aspirations of  freedom and the rigidity of the moral order. The capital is a caricature of India's dramatic paradox: In a shabby neon-lit room, a woman is beaten by her drunk husband, while another woman, seated in a bar lounge, flirts openly and orders mojitos.

Among the privileged classes, the sexual revolution has transformed female behavior. "In my relationships, my partners are open and independent," says Vikram, a 37-year-old bachelor, adding that "it is an undeniable fact that the sacrosanct institution of marriage is in the process of going to pieces." The number of divorce courts has multiplied since the late 1990s, and divorce procedures have been simplified.

Abortion clinics have been proliferating as well. Among the popular classes, sex education is nonexistent. Dr. Watsa, who has been answering letters from newspaper readers on the subject for years, says that for a long time he could not use the words "penis" or "vagina." In this land of the Kamasutra, a Victorian-era prudishness prevails. 

"The authorities don't do their work," sociologist Deepak Mehta says. "School books, monitored by conservative Hindus, don't deal with anything beyond reproduction." 

Explosion of eroticism

Sensing the winds of change, the press has been trying to get a handle on the Indian psyche with an increasing number of polls. And all of them show that Indians are lending greater importance to their own pleasure. Among the previous generation, as journalist Shobha De points out, sex was a formality: Indian women hoisted their saris, closed their eyes, and thought of Dilip Kumar, the all-the-rage actor at the time. Hindu tradition sees the woman's role as one of self-denial, duty and obedience.

Indian eroticism on its way? — Photo: anurag agnihotri

Today, magazine articles deal with "how to choose a man" and "women's favorite positions." Homosexuals, ostracized by taboo and legislation, are also gaining visibility. Eroticism is manifesting, with sales of sex toys exploding in India. Going out late at night in New Delhi has become popular. In the Hauz Khas quarter with its many bars, herds of happy stiletto-wearing young women course through on the arms of their boyfriends.

The whole idea of dating has become more fascinating, with social networks such as Orkut, Facebook, OkCupid and Tinder facilitating the process. "This year will be marked in history as the year we embraced Tinder," one journalist says ironically.

"I consult Tinder several times a day," admits Ruchika, a 36-year-old television producer. "When you live in India, it's so freeing to simply say 'yes' or 'no' to men thanks to Tinder! I've met some wonderful people outside my social circle." She plans to create an app better adapted to the needs of Indian women, one that would protect their identities. Ruchika thinks of herself as a "liberated woman," saying, "If you are financially independent in India, nobody questions your choices."

In this spirit, one blog causing quite a stir is "50 Dates in Delhi" started by a 32-year-old woman who writes under the name Alice. She writes about her various encounters, not without disillusionment but with a desire to understand this new world of flirting. She nevertheless sets limits for herself: no intercourse, and all meetings must take place within the context of a date. Not so liberated, then.

Alice's chutzpah lies elsewhere — in her willingness to be open in a secretive society. In the countryside, lovers meet in sugarcane fields. In cities, they hide in the shade of trees in public parks. "Obviously there have always been sex stories in India," says Ishan, 39, a designer. "And there's a lot of homosexuality and bisexuality. But you can't say anything about it openly: Appearances have to be preserved at all costs."

What women want

According to one poll, 76% of Indian women and 61% of Indian men don't think of infidelity as being a major sin. New Delhi's parties are incredibly permissive, replete as they are with huge quantities of alcohol and cocaine. 

Still, the concept of an arranged marriage is not necessarily a heresy among liberated women. Ruchika, for example, sees it as old-fashioned dating, something deeply ingrained in the culture.

"Indian women don't apply the equality they want to themselves," a foreigner living in New Delhi says. "They have very exact expectations of their partners and like to be treated like princesses."

For Salman, a 30-year-old bachelor with an active love life, the women of New Delhi are confusing. "They call themselves sexually liberated, but actually they're really looking for love."

Women say that the men are playing a double game. "In their deepest selves, they stay a little conservative even if they pretend the opposite," Ruchika says.

Ishan says men are frustrated because of an absence of sexual education. "It affects my life," he says. "Men like me feel a kind of thirst, a lack."

So distances between the sexes are manifesting. "Where are the men we'd like to go out with?" writes feminist Richa Kaul Padte, disappointed that so much machismo remains. In an attempt to find an unconventional solution, she proposes the radicalization of Indian women. "We demand more of yourselves and the men we love."

In New Delhi, the sexual revolution has created a parade of doubts and questions. But it's clear that this exploration of sex and cultural mores will continue for a long time to come.