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Is single the new black? For Indian women, it’s complicated

Single women face serious struggles even to get a flat on rent.   | Photo Credit: K.R. DEEPAK

Last evening, I went out with my college friend to a popular coffee shop in Kolkata, crowded with young lovers bedecked in the colours of Saraswati Puja, a festival that heralds the beginning of spring.

At the table beside us sat a couple who looked like typical millennials — they constantly clicked indulgent selfies, pouted non-stop, uploaded everything online immediately, with the boy checking and declaring the number of Likes triumphantly by thumping on the table.

‘Young love… wait till they are married and saddled with kids, pets, maids, homework and in-laws,’ my friend smirked.

Feminist type

‘We’ll be told we are eavesdropping, bad manners,’ I winked. My friend was about to say something when the girl at the table, who wore a purple sari and backless choli, raised her voice.

We stole a fleeting glance.

‘Let me tell you straight… I have no interest in being married. I am extremely independent, love my job, enjoy solo travel, I can’t give up my flat… and anyway, I am… umm… commitment phobic…’ She made a face and pushed away the boy’s left hand.

Was there a ring in there?

My friend and I exchanged looks.

‘Dude,’ the boy sniggered, taking back his arm defensively, adding almost under his breath, ‘You don’t want to grow into a sexless spinster, living alone with a bunch of cats in a cold, lonely apartment at 40.’

I’d just turned 40 in December, on the 14th. The last word stuck to me, more than the rest of his bhavishyawani (horoscope).

I waited for the girl’s response.

‘Besides, I don’t think you are commitment phobic, you’ve had a string of flings, haven’t you?’ the boy clicked his tongue, resuming sheepishly, ‘I would say you are nothing but a bloody feminist.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ the girl retorted in a shrill octave.

The boy asked for the bill.

‘Nothing,’ he shrugged his shoulders.

‘No, tell me,’ the girl met his eyes.

‘It means that you hate men… that you think you are better and can survive alone. It means that you are too opinionated and have a foot-in-mouth disease. It means you want multiple partners, and maybe you are a lesbian. It means you have jholawala, nari morcha type (activist) principles… it means you are lonely, lousy and lost…’

* * * *

Single women reportedly constitute 21% of India’s female population, being close to 73 million in number. These include unmarried, divorced, separated and widowed women. Between 2001 and 2011, there was an almost 40% increase in their numbers. Media reports say that the Women and Child Development ministry under Maneka Gandhi is slated to revise policy for the first time since 2001 to address the concerns around being single and female, which include social isolation and difficulties in accessing even ordinary services. .

There’s been a huge growth in this demographic, and ministry officials have said that government policy must prepare for this evolution by empowering single women through skills development and economic incentives.

The policy revision also aims to address concerns related to widows and universal health benefits for all women. And yet, a little over a year ago, and despite the social relevance of the subject, when I actually discussed the idea of a non-fiction book on single women in my circle of single women friends, I sensed a reluctance to talk freely about what being single really meant in India.

Is single the new black? For Indian women, it’s complicated

Some of them, 40-plus, shyly confessed that they’ve just created their nth profile on a matrimonial site, but made me swear I would not tell anyone else lest they be laughed at. Others clandestinely admitted to flings with married or younger men.

They spoke of serious struggles with basic life issues such as getting a flat on rent or being taken seriously as a start-up entrepreneur or getting a business loan or even getting an abortion (statistics collated by Mumbai’s International Institute for Population Sciences claim that 76% of the women who come for first-time abortions are single).

They confessed to a gnawing sense of loneliness, the looming anxiety about the onset of old age, health issues, of losing parents, siblings and friends over time, of personal security, of being elderly and alone.

I started introspecting on my own single life. When did I begin to realise it wasn’t so much a choice as a culmination of circumstances that I must eventually get used to and learn to adapt to, despite the occasional speed-breaks. That being single wasn’t only about relationship-centric fears.

Is single the new black? For Indian women, it’s complicated

It also covered physical and mental health, living with parents vis-a-vis alone in another city, the nauseating, never-ending pressure of marriage, the need for sex (a friend insists on calling it ‘internal servicing’), the desire to birth one’s own children, coupled with a general all-consuming pressure to conform to the larger majority, the statistic that sells — married people — who seem to be swallowing you up and swarming in population, be it virtually or really.

* * * *

‘Get her uterus removed,’ the gynaecologist declared. It was three years ago and I was at one of Delhi’s prestigious hospitals. She was the third gynaec I was consulting. I kept going back to her every Wednesday at 4 p.m., waiting on the claustrophobic ground floor, complaining of how my menstrual pain had gotten severe in the last few cycles, even unbearable. My mother accompanied me on most occasions, vouching for me, a lingering sadness in her ageing eyes. Perhaps she was just as fragile. In ways that we could never show each other.

‘But she’s so young, only in her 30s?’ my mother stuttered, protesting, as if against a looming death warrant. The doctor was busy talking with the nurse about a woman in labour. Not very interested in the ones who didn’t qualify in her estimation. Those like me who kept coming back — same complaint, same pain, same marital status.

“Why don’t you find her a husband soon? With her history… first Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome… now endometriosis…and, of course, her weight… is she interested in having a baby anyway?” I pushed my chair back impatiently, fighting back tears.

‘Shall we try Ananda Bazaar? They have a ‘Cosmopolitan’ section… more your type,’ Ma had whispered on our way back, as I looked away.

Beleaguered. Belittled. Barren?

* * * *

Nita Mathur (name changed on request) was born in a conservative Uttar Pradesh family, and grew up watching her mother ostracised for not bearing a son. I met the 34-year-old HR professional in an upscale South Delhi café a month before her marriage, which had been arranged by a family astrologer. Nita was preparing to return to Kanpur, her hometown. ‘I grew up with a gnawing guilt that I was born a girl… I wanted to get out of Kanpur at any cost. I battled with my father and uncles to come to Delhi to get an MBA degree,” she told me.

Like a virgin

For Nita, living alone in a Delhi PG meant life on her own terms, earning her way. She started dating, had sex. “It was, strangely, a way to get back at the closeted patriarchy I had been forced to deal with as a girl,” she said.

But her single status and living alone was a stigma for her parents, who wanted Nita married, and her sisters after her. They pressurised her, using tears and threats. “My mother always cried on the phone, warning me that life as a single woman, though seemingly attractive, would return to haunt me later. She told me my behaviour would affect my sisters’ lives….”

Nita finally agreed to marry. And since she could not tell anyone that she was sexually active, she decided to have a hymen reconstruction surgery. “It was the first question my to-be groom asked when we were granted half an hour alone.” Nita spent ₹60,000 on the half-hour procedure.

In an April 2015 report in, Dr. Anup Dhir, a cosmetologist from Apollo Hospital, said, ‘There’s been an increase of 20-30% in these surgeries annually. The majority of women who opt for this surgery are in the 20 to 30 age group.’

* * * *

I went to visit a single friend in her 40s who lives in a plush apartment complex in Thane. As my rented car entered the imposing iron gates, a lady security officer asked which apartment I was visiting. When I told her my friend’s name and flat number, she smirked: ‘Oh, the madam who lives by herself? Akeli? Not married?’

In the course of my interviews with 3,000 single urban women across India whose voices are integral to breaking the stigmatised silence around singlehood, I came across Shikha Makan, whose documentary Bachelor Girls is on the same subject.

Shikha spoke of being in the advertising industry, of keeping late hours. “From the first day, we felt uncomfortable. The watchman stared at us, as if he wanted to find out what we were up to.” Once, when she returned home at 2 a.m., a male colleague escorted her home. But when they reached the gate, the watchman stopped them and called the society chairman who accused Shikha of running a brothel. He threatened to throw her out.

“I called my father, who gave him a piece of his mind, and we continued to stay there. But we felt extremely uncomfortable. Then, the harassment started; someone would ring our bell at 3 a.m. or write nasty stuff on the walls. We decided to leave.”

* * * *

Ruchhita Kazaria, 35 and single, born to a Marwari family, started her own advertising agency, Arcee Enterprises, in 2004. She has since faced backlash for trying to conduct business without the backing of a husband’s surname or the validation of a male partner. Running her own company for the past 12 years has led to Ruchhita believing that “women in general, unfortunately, are still predominantly perceived as designers, back-office assistants, PR coordinators, anything but the founder-owner of a business entity.”

Sans arm candy

“In October 2014, a friend asked if I was “secretly” dating someone, probably finding it difficult to digest that a single woman could head a company minus a male counterpart and socialise sans arm candy,” she wrote to me. Within 15 minutes, the friend had sought to enrol Ruchhita with couples and groups that participated in swapping, threesomes and orgies, encouraging her to be a part of this ‘discreet’ group, to ‘hang loose’.

With single women, it’s their sexuality that’s always at the forefront of social exchanges, not their minds or talents.

* * * *

‘What did you say?’ the girl at the next table squeals, her eyes glinting.

The boy’s chest heaves as she shoves in the returned change into his shirt pocket.

‘I am a feminist,’ I say, suddenly, protectively.

Then before the boy can say something, I add, ‘and I am single, 40. So?’

The girl pushes her chair back.

‘I’m Payal,’ she swallows hard.

‘I’m Riya, 54, divorced, two kids, that’s my son,’ the lady sitting behind them walks over to the girl’s table.

Amio single, feminist, war widow,’ says another woman who has just walked in. ‘Can I have your table please after you leave? Bad knees!’

The boy looks genuinely puzzled.

‘I hate cats. But I love sex,’ my friend pipes up.

We burst out laughing.

‘Single, huh?’ the boy barks.

‘No, but my husband is away on work in another city, so maybe, umm, okay, just feminist,’ she grits her teeth.

Five of us then make a curious semi-circle. Standing around the girl, who wraps her hands around her shoulders.

We watch him stomp off and leave. The girl looks at me. I hold my friend’s hand. The older lady touches my back. The woman waiting for the table clumsily clicks a selfie.

And just like that, in the middle of an ordinary, noisy restaurant, we become the same. A statistic. A story.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 8:59:41 PM |

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