Till about a decade ago, the stereotype of the single woman was a dispirited, antsy, stoic figure.
The scenario has undergone a sea change now.
A new tribe of single and smart Indian women are happily celebrating the joy of being solo.
Rajashree Balaram meets such singles only to find out that they are in no hurry to mingle.
Almost every other day, you wake up to murmurs and declarations of women’s liberation and rights. The social media, especially, is suffused with images and prose that urge you to accept and embrace your body type, skin colour and sexual orientation. It is almost as if a large part of your world wants to tell you that you are fine just the way you are—which is a good thing. After all, we women need those affirmations in a society that is also increasingly skewed towards unreal expectations of beauty and propriety. So why is it that every time a woman even vaguely states that she is happy being alone and does not weep over the absence of a man in her life, there are thought blurbs that pop up over most heads around her? Each one as inquisitive as the next: Is she a man-hater? How does she cope with the pressure of loneliness? Is something wrong with her? Doesn’t she want babies? Is she a closet lesbian? And this more than any other—is she genuinely happy or only pretending to be so?
“People are curious to know how life works for you as a single woman after a certain age. I don’t think the pressure is any less on men either,” says 43-year-old Elizabeth Abba. The Bhubaneswar-based environmental scientist and Fulbright scholar is an accomplished go-getter who has published several research papers, and travels frequently to speak at national and international seminars. But her hard-won accomplishments are just confetti for people who want to know why she doesn’t wear the prized badge—that of a married woman. “It is not like I am against the institution of marriage,” she says. “But I have thoroughly enjoyed pursuing academics and was too busy to think about marriage. The thought of companionship and motherhood is beautiful, and, fortunately, the way science and health care options are evolving, I can be a mother even in my 40s. It is not as if I have staunchly resisted the institution of marriage, but I refuse to feel tormented about my status as a single.”
Elizabeth is fully aware of her steadily diminishing chances of motherhood, but finds it easy to be positive about it because reproduction in our society is no longer following established templates, what with options of surrogacy, IVF, frozen eggs and friendlier adoption laws for single women.
However, not all single women eye mushy images of motherhood with longing. Kruti Shankar, 37, is firmly set against both marriage and motherhood. The Bengaluru-based physics professor has long stopped rolling her eyes at people who disapprove of her choice. “I am battling endometrial cysts. And my relatives and friends are only too eager to tell me how I have brought it upon myself by not marrying and having a baby,” says Kruti. “But I genuinely don’t want to share my space with someone. I love waking up when I want to, doing my routine undisturbed, travelling alone, having no demands on my time or emotions, and not putting up with a companion’s moodswings and habits. You may choose to call that a rather self-centred way to live, but that is the only way I want to live. When I need companionship or sex, I go get it.”
Kruti is in a long-distance, open relationship with a man she met online a year ago. “When we meet every two or three months, we discuss books, go cycling, explore different cuisines, debate over world politics and make love,” she says. “We try and spend a few days with each other whenever we can. We are not bound by bills, home loans, joint insurance or parenthood or even that crazy sense of longing or possessiveness for the other. He is free to meet other women as much as I can go on a date with another man when I want to. We are honest with each other and not clandestine about anything. If boredom settles in and this equation wears thin, we will still be friends and care for each other. And it won’t be the end of the world for either of us, which it feels like to a lot of married couples who plunge head first into an apocalyptic turmoil when they part ways.”
It is interesting how women’s resistance to marriage can give rise to some amusing situations. I once knew a maths professor who was strictly against the idea of marriage and had been telling her parents about it since her teens. They didn’t take her seriously enough, though, and set up an arranged match anyway when she reached that ‘dangerous’ age of 30. Exasperated and enraged in equal measure by her parents’ we-know-better ways, she had her hair shaved off to a shining bald pate at a beauty salon before coming home where the prospective groom and his family were waiting to meet her.
Of course, all hell broke loose between the two traditional Malayali families, and the scene that followed could easily find its way into a movie!
Most single women also agree that it is not easy to sidestep the loneliness that nags you sometimes. Elizabeth, the environmental scientist, admits that she had a tough time when she shifted from her parents’ home in Mumbai to live all by herself in a three-bedroom apartment in Bhubaneswar, one of the perks of her new job. “I felt the pinch when I went shopping for things to set up my home,” says Elizabeth.
“I wished I had a companion’s opinion to argue against or agree with. I felt a little low that day, but the upside to it was the pride I felt at having purchased it all with my own money. It also helped that
I got to learn a lot about choosing the right gadgetry and nabbing the best deals. Looking around me,
I have realised that a lot of married women are lonely in their marriage just as much as I am without
It is this loneliness that unsettles family and friends of most single women. Petsy Thomas is often amused at the way her friends play cupid. Originally from Trichur, the 35-year-old now works as a software solutions designer for an insurance firm in Vienna. “For me, it is more important that I meet the right person than get hitched at the right time,” says Petsy. “When I consistently warded off proposals, I used to see a lot of sad faces around me. But I decided there is no point in appeasing others and then leading an unhappy, compromised life.” Petsy feels she has learnt to respect people around her a lot more because she has come to rely on them more deeply in the absence of a steadfast companion. “For instance, I am okay admitting to my neighbours that I need help driving away a spider in the balcony. You get more honest that way,” she says. In fact, Petsy is also open to the idea of adopting a child and being a
single mum if she doesn’t find her right companion.
Indeed, there is no denying that there are definite pluses to singledom. Often in the haste to get hitched, a lot of women fail to embark on a discovery of their inner strengths and talents. But unlike earlier, when a lot of women gravitated towards a comfortable life of domesticity, a growing number of women now are hungry to explore, make mistakes, bounce back and rough it out. And if that means giving up on an eligible match, they are even happy to risk that. Shalini Goel, a 32-year-old finance consultant from a traditional Punjabi family in Chandigarh, ruffled more than a few feathers when, at 21, she told her deeply conservative parents, that she will marry when she is ready to and not when they are ready to host the great fat Indian wedding. “I wanted to do my postgraduate degree in management and my father refused to sponsor my education because he wanted me to get married right then,” says Shalini, who has now taken a year’s sabbatical from work to explore India. “I am enjoying it all—the tight budgets, living in dormitories and befriending strangers. I confess I miss having a partner next to me when I am enjoying a sunset after trekking to a mountaintop. But it is also invigorating to realise that I climbed it all alone.”
It is admirable then that so many young women are stopping to ask themselves what they really want out of their lives. It is not easy to make such a spirited choice in the face of societal pressure and prejudice. One is reminded of that Greek myth that humans were created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate halves, condemning each to spend their lives in search of the other. Perhaps, it’s time Zeus knows that both halves have realised that they are wholly complete just as they are.
(Some names have been changed to protect identity)
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