BOOK EXCERPT

‘Are you married?’ ‘What? Still single?’ ‘Parents not looking?’ ‘Too choosy?’

India has nearly 73 million single women. A new book chronicles some of their negotiations with marriage.

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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.