What’s so scary about being single and 30?

What to me is simultaneously surprising and sad is how this persecution of a single woman and her projection as a dried-up spinster seems to haunt even educated, upper-middle-class women who face the same sexist battles on a daily basis.

Namrata Deka, HR coordinator with a financial consulting firm in Bengaluru, turned 30 last year and is already dreading the journey ahead. “Most women are petrified of being 30 and single in India. While it’s exciting to be stepping into your 30s as it pushes a woman to a more mature category, the skyrocketing pressure of getting married is like a noose tightening around your neck, 24/7. Even my own mother who happens to be a gynaecologist tells me indirectly that I have to settle soon as it might get difficult to have kids or find the right guy, post my 30s. In office, too, these days I am tagged as the ‘oldie’. Looks like I am being seen as a boring spinster who sticks out like a sore thumb,” she rues.

Mumbai-based Riya Mitra, head of Content and Development with Vishesh Films, with 17 years of experience in brand communication, points out to the film industry as a glaring example of all that’s wrong. “No matter how much we talk about coming of age of Hindi cinema and with a few exceptions like Sridevi in English Vinglish or Mom or Madhuri Dixit in Dedh Ishqiya and Gulaab Gang, in the film industry, the 30s pretty much mark the shelf life of a leading lady. How many roles are specifically written for mature women, who can act and look their biological age, on-screen? The rat race is so back-breaking that everything is skewed to preserving one’s youth –naturally symbolic with glamour and thus longevity in the trade. I mean, why can’t a heroine be 40 and not be typecast to simply playing glamorous-looking yummy mummies in water purifier or diaper ads or family-oriented commercials? Or become judges on talent contests and reality shows? Feminism is mostly made to appear apologetic in Bollywood because we are constantly catering to the masses and our social fabric is constructed to fit women into a cookie-cutter mould.”

Having faced the scathing pressure of singlehood in her 30s, Riya recalls how, when she turned 30, all around her in the organisation she was then working in, people would keep asking her if this was going to be the “big” marriage year? “Simultaneously, the pressure of motherhood acts as another huge detriment. In fact, I was once told by a man that the only reason he’s agreeing to marriage is wanting to father children, otherwise he has no interest in matrimony. Personally, I’ve never wanted kids, and I’ve realised how that can act as a major deal-breaker, because for Indian men conservatively brought up, craving their own progeny is almost seen as a fundamental right – a control mechanism, in other words,” Riya analyses.

As I recount the conversations I’ve had with various women – all independent, successful professionals – I’m forced to ask myself again: what is it about the 30s that make us equally desirable and dreaded? Why do women constantly hear the refrain, “Tees ki ho gayi ho,” like a primitive death knell? How do we silently consume on a daily basis, serials packaged as “bold and women- oriented” that primarily revolve around a woman who hasn’t yet found a suitable life partner, even though she is in her 30s? Her professional success is always projected as second-hand. Or maybe she’s the darker or more daring one of two sisters. Single women who’re shown portraying on-screen mardangi need to beat up the bad guys, cuss and act tough physically, to prove their sexual and emotional independence.

Marriage-crazy to marriage-cynic: The single in my 30s state of mind

The bechari to bitch journey isn’t a cake walk, and not without its share of personal heartburn and inner realisations. I personally cringe every time my 60-plus, anxious mother brings up, yet again, the prospect of giving another matrimonial ad or when she stores the Sunday newspaper’s matrimonial supplement stealthily. And while I own up to extreme loneliness and the occasional craving to freeze my eggs or think of adoption, I am internally wary every time I think of this. The sense of personal failure, synonymous with finding a companion to settle down with, seems a road I’d rather not travel down again.

Once “marriage-crazy” by her own admission, 35-year-old Poulami Ghosh, who works with a technology conglomerate in Bengaluru, calls herself, just like me, a “marriage-cynic and cynical workaholic”. She shuns the very idea of being “set up”. Recounting her role reversal, she reminisces, “We advertised in practically all the newspapers, enrolled on almost every conceivable matrimonial website, visited hordes of astrologers and did just about everything a woman does to get married by the ‘right’ age. But all I got were ugly rejections, left, right and centre. Sometimes for being fat, at times, for my elder sister being divorced and a victim of domestic violence, on other occasions, for my pay package not being up to the mark, and with each negative response, heartbreaks were the mandate. Even now, relatives or neighbours bring up references of some guy who stays abroad or in my city and praise his family just to lure us into matchmaking. But I have become very strict nowadays, no meeting strangers and wasting my time. Even my maid once tried to fix me with an extremely forsha (fair-complexioned) guy. My answer was a polite NO.”

Having been the victim of sabotaged arranged-marriage setups, false hopes and shattered dreams, Poulami is today clearer about her priorities. “I don’t want my mother to suffer any more than she has. To mail my latest photo ‘no later than tomorrow’ to some prospective who wants to basically check out my physical attributes and then turn me down randomly on the basis of my skin colour or waist size, for her to run to the nearest astrologer and source information on the NRI guy’s dad’s demands at the earliest, then match kundlis obsessively, wear stones and rings on practically all my fingers, maintain staunch vraths, travel cross-country to sip coffee with strangers who think they have a right to run me down and objectify my womanhood. So no more of this circus for me!”

Excerpted with permission from Status Single: The Truth About Being A Single Woman In India, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, Amaryllis.