From the second we’re born, women are bombarded with instructions and examples on how to lead a good married life. From stern grandmotherly warnings that insist your behaviour won’t be tolerated in an anya tharavaad (someone else’s house), to unhappy aunts insisting we stay in the room while they complain about their useless husbands because we should know early on the reality of what’s coming to us too. And women’s magazines that sell tips on how to catch a guy and keep a marriage spicy after 20 years don’t help either. It overwhelmingly feels like we’re programmed from the get-go to be perfectly primed for inevitable married life.
But what about people who see their lives taking a different path? Right now, I’m at a place where singlehood feels like the most natural state of being, but I find myself constantly feeling the lack of a role model around me, of a blue print to follow, or advice to take on what it really means to be an adult single woman in India, and how to negotiate this complicated path. Because singlehood can be just as difficult and tumultuous as marriage clearly is, except single women don’t have entire magazines dedicated to their issues and the ways to get around them.
This is why I was so excited to be invited to meet former lifestyle journalist Sreemoyee Piu Kundu and the 12 Bangalorean women who made it into her new book Status Single, on 31 January at Rock Salt, Bangalore. It felt like a great opportunity to meet with other single women, and figure out exactly how they were, well, doing it.
The women I met there were a great reflection of who this book could be meant for. Like Arundhati Ghosh, the executive director of an arts foundation, who giggled at the thought of women thinking she wanted to steal their boring husbands when she’s happier than ever as a polyamorous woman in her forties. I met the poet, writer and teacher, Heera Nawaz, who told me about the odd feeling of being a journalist and therefore always half in someone else’s limelight, reporting on the achievements of others, before she read out a poem celebrating her own single woman status. I met Malini Parmar, an erstwhile IT professional who told me about the ease and excellence of the menstrual cup over shared cigarettes. There were others too, some of whom preferred to remain anonymous. None of the women seemed particularly concerned or bothered with singlehood unless asked, because they were too busy thinking and talking about all the other aspects of their lives that kept them busy, like their work, their kids and families, Tinder woes and other social engagements.
If you are a single, urban woman around or above the age of 30, Status Single will probably resonate very deeply with you. If you aren’t, it’s a mixed offering.
Status Single is meant to explore the lives, minds and motivations of India’s 73 million single adult women, and does so through the personal accounts of 3001 women whose stories made it into the book. Most of the women are upper class, working in media, software, marketing, journalism, arts, law, IT and the like, and seem to be from one of the four major cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata. And for the most part, like the women I met in Bangalore, the women in the book all seem to be above the age of 30, which leaves some of the rest of us in a bit of a delicate position about what the book can do for us.
What this book does wonderfully, thanks to the scale of the reportage and the sensitivity of the subject, is give you a really sharp glimpse into the barely-discussed situations and scenarios that single women can find themselves in.
In a section correctly titled ‘Most Indian Gynaecologists No Better Than Nosy, Next Door Neighbours’, Kundu discusses how she felt when a doctor combined her endometriosis diagnosis and an appraisal of her single status to briskly recommend that she have her uterus removed now. In another, we meet telecom professional and single mother Amita Arya, who explains the unique stigma single women face if they happen to have an affair with a married man, and how “there are always married women who fear [she] might snatch their husbands next”. We hear about Rimi Das, a marketing professional, whose friends congratulated her on her 16-kilogram weight loss by remarking on her newly improved chances at phasao-ing a guy (“‘Ab ladka milega,’ I was told by one and all, as if that’s why I had started focusing on my health and fitness regime”). The book is full of unique experiences like this, some cruel, some comical, all deeply revelatory, just in terms of being an account of the unique obstacles single women encounter.
In addition to providing a window into these unique snippets of singlehood, it’s also full of experiences and insights that most single woman would personally relate to. Like when Kundu confesses to “being slightly fatigued to put myself out there repeatedly and be used as a guinea pig in the laboratory of relationships”, or discusses the “humiliation and the persecution” of suffering through the arranged marriage rigmarole. You can almost imagine the sense of excitement and relief that many single women above 30 would feel upon encountering these experiences, and realising that they’re not alone in the struggle.
But if, like me, you’re a 25-year-old woman looking for guidance on how to lead a happy single life, the book presents a mixed bag. It certainly isn’t the most hopeful or invigorating account of being single. When I asked Kundu what she would want people to take away from the book, she said, “that being single in this country is a curse. Don’t get carried away by pictures of solo women travellers and single women buying a Louis Vuitton, because a single woman’s life is much more intense than that.”
The book does give you a really raw insight into the difficult complexities and sharp, unique loneliness that single Indian women can face. But unlike, say, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, or even Sharanya Manivannan’s (albeit fictional) The High Priestess Never Marries, it doesn’t really tell you much about how beautiful solitude can be, or of the joys of choosing to live a life single. And while each chapter does end with a small note on what you can learn from that chapter, you’re still left wishing for more: more guidance, more advice, more tricks, tools and tips beyond that it’s important to take care of yourself.
But in providing these accounts of the specific difficulties these single women have faced, the book can still be very useful for those embarking on considered singlehood. It serves as a sort of advance warning, that these situations may likely pop up in your life too, and gives you some insight into the thought processes these incidents can spark. It partly prepares you, basically, for the events and emotional turmoil to come, and it feels good to really know what you’re getting into before it hits you hard. On the other hand, it could leave some feeling a bit demotivated considering all the struggles to come, and potentially feed into the same kind of pressure that makes people run away from singlehood in the first place.
All in all though, I wish mine wasn’t a demographic the book ignored. Even whilst meeting the women in the book that night in Bangalore, I got the unshakeable feeling that my singlehood was looked at, even by other single women, as a temporary phase, something that would pass and wasn’t as solidified or to be taken as seriously as the singlehood of women above 30.
But I know that many women my age feel a lot like I do about this, and look at singlehood, as Kundu herself actually said that night, as a state of mind, not a state of life. To that end, there’s many things single women in their twenties want to know or experience themselves about wrestling with singlehood, and I wish we had made it into the book, and the narrative of Indian woman singlehood, too.
Co-published with Firstpost.