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Single, and enjoying it?
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February 09, 2007

Part I: On being single

Indian society, according to Radhika Jha's Barsaati Days, tends to think single people stay single because they've had no choice.

The author speaks of countless women and men, who actually confess to being single only because they haven't met anyone worth marrying, not because they are enjoying their single status.

According to Radhika Jha's Barsaati Days this attitude of society can be blamed on society's mistrust of singles.

We continue with the part two of the story, which is part of an anthology, Chasing The Good Life: On Being Single by editor Bhaichand Patel.

An extract:

If you are a single woman then you are considered to be a loose woman, and hence 'not respectable enough to marry' but great to party or sleep with. If you are a single man, you escape the stigma for a while but if you touch forty and are still not married then you are assumed to be a complete loser or else a pervert. Underlying these attitudes is the notion that single people are failures, that they are single because they don't have a choice. This is the story that those who are part of the system tell themselves. Indian society needs to see single people as failures, people who have been unable to perform that most basic and human act -- reproduce. Or else it would have to rethink the fundamental assumption on which it is based -- marriage. For there is no doubt that in India marriage is a purely social contract. Why else is the entire world invited to witness it?

These attitudes are so prevalent that often single people end up internalizing them, and actually feeling like failures. Countless women and men, both in public and in private confess to being single only because they haven't met anyone worth marrying.  I have never heard anyone say openly that they are single because they are having a wonderful, fulfilling life.

Paradoxically, those who choose to be single and to stay single after their mid-twenties are, by society's own standards, some of its most successful and visible members. They are doctors, architects, media people, lawyers, managers, writers, actors, professionals from all walks of life. More important, they are high up enough in their professions to be able to earn enough to live alone. What Indian society has conveniently forgotten to recognize is that more and more single people today are single because they have chosen to be, not because they are forced to.

But it is precisely because of this that singleness poses such a threat to society. Because asserting the right to choose directly attacks the foundations of society's most cherished unit, the family. On doesn't choose one's family, just as one doesn't choose one's nation or religion. Yet these are the things a society is based upon. A person who asserts the right to choose flies in the face of family, society and nation.

A single woman is even more threatening to society than a man because it is she who is primarily responsible for reproducing society. One has only to look at how the earliest woman professional, the courtesan, was regarded, to see how threatening an independent woman can be to society-even in the West. In Victorian and Edwardian England, actresses, opera divas, ballet dancers, and authoresses gained great fame but not much respect. Till the gender revolution of the seventies even women with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge were kept out of managerial positions with such zeal that most could find jobs only as executive secretaries.

In India, society hits back at a single woman where she is most vulnerable. A pretty young woman living on her own has to be a sex-maniac. Therefore, she is out of the Laxman Rekha that protects young marriageable girls. Every married man feels he is doing her a favour by offering her some sex. But in fairness, single men don't have it much easier. A young IT professional I met at a bar told me, 'Four months after I returned from the US, I walked up to a woman at a party, and within five minutes of talking to her, her brother and his friends had me in the bathroom with a gun in my face. Now I'm terrified of talking to a (Delhi) woman.'

Male or female, a single person is an individual first, but the ways in which men and women experience 'singleness' are different. For a girl, singleness creeps up on her and catches her unawares. Education is probably the catalyst. In the classroom, a girl gets used to competing with boys and even beating them. At home, doing well in school earns her the respect of her father. In her relationships, she then wants to be reasonably certain that she will enjoy the same respect. Saddled with an educated daughter, even conventional families want to reassure themselves that their daughter will be well-treated by her in-laws and when they can't be sure of it, they reluctantly help her to be independent. As Roshan Lal, a safai karamchari at the Ministry of Finance puts it, 'I am willing to pay a dowry, but I must first be certain that the boy will treat my daughter with respect.' As a result, his daughter, Latha, is unmarried and works as a secretary in a bank.

For men coming out of a joint-family system, the idea that a woman is sizing them up is terrifying. Because it forces them to ask the question, 'Am I interesting enough to satisfy her? This question can only be answered if they answer another question: 'Who am I? But the latter can only be answered in privacy. The answer to such a question, possible the most difficult question anyone can ask of himself or herself, requires that a man be capable of introspection. And that only comes when one is unafraid of solitude. In a joint-family system, privacy is something that a boy never gets. 'I couldn't get my parents to knock on my door before they entered,' a close friend, Vijay, confessed to me last year when he finally moved out of his mother's home. 'I love living on my own. I can think for myself, my feelings belong to me and not to my mother. I feel I'm a person. I know more and more men like him, men who aren't afraid of independent women, who aren't fundamentally insecure about their own attractiveness men who have realized, like a journalist friend of mine, that 'women are like rivers, you have to let them flow.'

Things have changed a lot since 1994 when I fled my barsaati in the middle of the night .In 2003, I returned to Delhi and was shocked by the change. What stunned me was when, shortly after my arrival, a woman at the beauty parlour --obviously married, a big diamond on her finger --leaned over to me and said, 'You lucky thing, don't ever get married.'

It is easy to be single in Delhi today. Landlords prefer single people because they've realized that single people pay the best and look after the place better. There are places to go to, lots of things to do. There is a community of single people in the city who are visible, successful and unashamed.

I think single people have a lot to thank Dr Manmohan Singh for. Though he never planned it that way, young single people are the ones who have most benefited from liberalization. They are the ones who have the incomes to afford the clothes and the glamorous lifestyle the magazines hype. And yet, I don't see anything glamorous in being single. It is a rich experience, but there is little glamour in it.

Like everything in life, even singleness comes with a price attached to it. What is hardest about being single for me are the moments when one is truly alone. These moments steal up on you, catch you unawares when you are at your most vulnerable. What is most wonderful about being single is the anarchy of it, the lack of accountability, the naked intensity of each moment--both the good ones and the bad ones.

Part I: On being single

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

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