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The dilemma of a single woman in Delhi
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February 08, 2007

Part II: Are singles a threat to society?

The question: 'What's wrong with single women?'

The answer: 'They are dangerous.'

This was the dilemma a single woman faced house-hunting in India's capital in Radhika Jha's, Barsaati Days.

Jha's story -- named after the Delhi term for a top-floor accomodation -- is part of an anthology, Chasing The Good Life: On Being Single, edited by Bhaichand Patel.

We present an extract from Barsaati Days.

My life as a 'single' in Delhi can be summed up in a single word: Barsaati.

From the time I heard that word when I was twelve I was seduced by it. I imagined myself lying in splendour in a huge double bed in a room made up of windows, open to the sky and yet private, the tops of trees waving cheerily at me, and dark romantic rain clouds of the Meghdoot variety coming by to say hello. I could practically feel the raindrops slithering down the windowpane and the scent of rain on dry ground tickling my nostrils. And somewhere in the background, a slightly plaintive monsoon raaga.

With the years, the word developed other connotations. It acquired an aura of rosy anticipation: of waiting for life to knock at my door, or waiting for the right person to arrive. But it was also a space in which to dream without interruption, and to hope that when the door opened, instead of an irate parent saying hurry up and get moving, a real romantic hero could walk in. For I was convinced that singleness had to be experienced first before real love was possible. And therefore one needed a space of one's own.

So in 1994, when I moved back to Delhi after university in the US, I promptly went to an estate agent and asked him to find me a little barsaati. I had a budget of Rs 5000, modest but not unrealistic. `It will be difficult, madam, but I will try.' And true to his word he did try quite hard to help me. But in those days few landlords were willing to rent a barsaati to a single girl. `We don't rent to single girls, only to families,' was the brutal answer I got when in insisted on an explanation.

'But why? I tried to reason. 'A single girl will get married and is therefore far less likely to not give back your apartment.

'That is not the point. We don't like single women.'

'What's wrong with single women?

'They are dangerous,' a fat Punjabi housewife told me.

In desperation I tried another tactic. I took my father along. But that only made things worse. My father would step forward and explain that he had a house in Delhi and would act as guarantor so there was no question of my not returning the flat. But his entirely rational argument far from persuading them was met with faces like closed doors.

At last I found something. It was a beautiful little barsaati with a terrace from where I could watch the moon and a balcony with a neem tree growing into it. And it overlooked a park. The second I set eyes on it, I was determined to have it. But the landlord insisted that I could only have female relatives as visitors, and that I had to be home by 10.30 p.m. When I tried to explain that if my father trusted me to live alone and since I was paying rent, they had no right to question me, they got more and more silent. I offered to double the rent and very grudgingly the man agreed to let me stay. I understood why when I found the landlord, a sixty-eight-year-old man with grandchildren, sitting on my bed at 11.30 p.m. one night when I got out of the bathroom after a pre-bed shower.

I asked him how he'd got in and he told me he had let himself in with his extra key. I was furious, but controlled myself and asked him coldly why he had come to see me so late at night. He replied, 'I thought if you can be 'friends' with other men, why can't you be 'friends' with me? I am free tonight.

At that point I knew I had only two choices, stay in the room and maybe be raped, or run.

So I ran. I was barefoot, without a penny, and wearing only a bathrobe. Luckily my car keys were on a table by the front door and I grabbed them as I fled.

That was my first attempt at being single in Delhi. Instead of a romantic hero I had a man older than my father sneaking into my place without knocking and sitting on my bed in the middle of the night.

There are many kinds of singleness, some imposed and some chosen. There are temporary, singles and permanent singles. There is the singleness of a widower, of a divorced man, of a widow, of a divorced woman. Then there is the singleness of the hard-core bachelor. There is the singleness of the professional woman. And then there is the singleness of those young people who want to have space to dream, to discover themselves and others without interruption. There is the singleness of the intellectual wedded to ideas or the artist to creating. (In the old days, these were the people who went off into the forest. Now they have to make do with a barsaati.) Then there is the singleness of the person who is so full of odd angles and hard corners that there is not enough space for anyone else. There is the singleness of the True Loner, a man or a woman who can only bear to be alone.

The latter can be spotted at the large receptions where there is no opportunity for intimacy, but lots of opportunities to be 'seen'. I became a single because I was seduced by a word. What I didn't realize then was that being single in India turns you into an untouchable.

Part II: Are singles a threat to society?

~~ Excerpted from Chasing The Good Life: On Being Single, edited by Bhaichand Patel, published by Penguin Books India, Rs 325, with the publisher's permission.

~ Would you like to buy this book?



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