As a happily single woman of 33, I’ve often wondered about the ideal response to that annoying, yet inevitable, question that every unattached woman past a certain age has to deal with — “why aren’t you married?” Having spent the past several years in the U.S., away from the prying eyes and wagging tongues of overzealous family friends and relatives, I’ve been one of the lucky ones. Yet, when I moved back to India, it took only a few hours following touch-down in Delhi, for these seemingly idle folks to re-enter my life with a renewed zest, almost as if to make up for those years of freedom.
While life in the U.S. was enlightening in a variety of ways, within the context of this piece, I realised that even American women are no strangers to the pressures faced by their Indian sisters. That said, no-one, in my humble opinion, comes quite as close to us Indians, as far as intensely personal, brazenly probing and outrageously presumptuous questions about one’s personal life are concerned. And why are we so disturbingly good at this? As Malcolm Gladwell said, “ten thousand hours of practice.”
I can’t recall a more fitting anecdote to illustrate my point than the following. In 2007, I worked in an investment bank in New York for a little less than a year. I sat in the “curry corner”, the unofficial sobriquet for the section of the research floor that housed most of the Indian associates. I use the word “housed” by design, given that besides running to our apartments for a shower and a few hours of sleep, we practically lived here. It was here that I witnessed a conversation that to my mind is the archetypal example of the sort of unabashed enquiries Indians are notorious for.
A young, successful associate from the Indian subsidiary of our bank was in the New York office for the day. She walked over to say ‘hi’ to one of my colleagues, Payal (not her real name), who until a few years ago, worked with her in Mumbai. Nanoseconds after our guest said “hello”, she fired her first question: “Have you been promoted?” Payal, a talented professional herself, responded with a ‘no’ and began to explain the politics of promotion in our sprawling mid-town headquarters. With no interest in or patience for inter-office politics, our guest cut her off and fired the next salvo: “How much do you earn?” I shot a quick look at Payal, who seemed taken aback. Payal and I had worked alongside for months, and I daresay we had even become close. But never had the thought of putting her on the spot like this ever crossed my mind. In an organisation where associates could earn in a wide range based on performance, there were some unsaid rules that were meant never to be broken.
Payal took a few seconds to contemplate her response, and very diplomatically began to underscore the reality of the wide range of compensation packages in the bank. Our guest, even less impressed with this answer than the previous one, interjected again: “Do you have a baby?” “No,” said Payal, by now visibly annoyed by the third degree. “Why?” continued the woman, unperturbed by Payal’s rapidly changing face colour.
Really? Had she really just asked my friend why she didn’t have child yet? Every fibre of my being was aching to give Miss 101 questions a piece of my mind. But before I could think of anything scathing yet witty to say, Payal simply said: “It takes at least 10 minutes to make a baby, and my husband and I barely spend that much time together during the week.”
I burst out laughing despite myself. Payal was married to another high performer in the bank, who was even more sleep-deprived than we were on the research side.
Once our visitor left, I turned to Payal and asked her why she hadn’t shut this woman down. She just shrugged and said, “She’s just being desi.”
I guess she was right, even though I’ve never been that generous to anyone who’s stuck their nose into my business. You know those pesky relatives who’ll make it a point to walk up to you at every family wedding, and whisper gleefully in your ear, “you’re next.” I often fantasise about the day I get to meet them at a funeral and return the favour.
I know it’s awful and makes me a bad person, but we’re all allowed to dream … right? The closest I’ve even come to doing anything of the kind was a couple of years ago, when an especially meddlesome aunt cornered me at my brother’s wedding, and lamented in rather dramatic fashion that she would probably see the heavens before she saw me get married. I advised her to pick up yoga, since that was probably the only tool that would allow her to live long enough to see me take the plunge. My aunt was not happy, especially since I did a hilarious caricature of her attempting to do kapalabhati (yogic breathing exercise) each time I saw her at wedding functions.
No mercy — that’s been my mantra in dealing with folks who find it hard to respect another’s privacy and life choices. By and large, my strategy has been effective. Within months of being back in India, the nosy neighbours, relatives and friends have been appropriately dealt with and forced back into retirement.
But honestly, I shouldn’t have to. With more and more women being educated, forging ahead in their careers, and delaying or sometimes altogether forgoing marriage, it’s time for the rest of India to grow up. This outdated cultural sanction for patronising women by questioning their marital choices must go. Till then, my sisters-in-arms, don’t ever feel guilty for fighting back. Defend your life choices with humour, wit and confidence.