As much as the fact hovers between corny and clichéd, this piece cannot be written without cricket. Cricketers, actually. They are part of my life story as a singleton/bachelor girl/spinster. The story is not about how I found one or two or three cricketers compellingly attractive and how they turned out to be heels and broke my heart and that is why I am single… Not even close.
It is more about how cricket and cricketers first made me process the idea of singlehood, and then understand how the outside world deals with it. When Kalpana asked me to write about being single (what’s the word here – deliberately? purposefully? purposely? stubbornly?) and I began to work through memories, cricket and cricketers kept showing up.
I remember precisely the first – and only – time my father asked me the “What Are You Planning To Do With Your Life?” question – code for shaadi talk. It was November 26, 1995, just around noon. I’d just turned 27, my Dad was driving us somewhere for Sunday lunch. There is a reason I remember the date and time but not where we were going. Cricket commentary was on the radio – India were playing New Zealand in a one-day match in Nagpur, and this madcap Kiwi batsman had pulverised our bowling. On Mumbai’s Eastern Express Highway, just after Nathan Astle completes his debut ODI century, my Dad throws a hand grenade onto the back seat.
It took a while to explode because my reply was about applying for a journalism fellowship and travelling for a bit. After which the M word detonated good and proper. With Astle just having completed his century, India being well and truly stuffed, the coolest parents in the world (and they remain so) led me into an ambush. Naturally, everything that followed the question meant that Astle’s hundred was seared onto my mind forever. The matter did sort itself out within a few months (more on that later) but the sheer incongruity of staying optionally single, unmarried, unhitched was noted.
More than ten years on – a decade-plus of personal and professional singleton adventures – it was only when a cricket friend came home for lunch did I first get an idea of what my life looked like to the outside world.
My friend, standing in the middle of my living room in Delhi, asks, “Did you do all this”? He is waving his hands around at sofas, cushions, a carpet, a bookcase, paintings, photos on the wall, a TV set in a corner. The table was set for lunch, mats etc, and my friend was half baffled, half bemused as he acknowledged curtains, crockery, photos, music, books. Yes, of course, I’d done all this. “Who else?”
I’d known my friend for almost as long as I’d been a sports journalist. Perceptive, compassionate, fun. I understood instantly where his question came from: the box in which single Indian women were usually housed. Where, while growing up, I’d seen singlehood translate itself in the movies, books, television, across social whisper.
It presented the woman as an entity unfulfilled, incomplete and, leading from there, eventually unhappy. Whose surroundings, it was imagined – and no doubt still is – would be dark, forlorn, gloomy, unkempt and, of course, only half of what a home should be. My cricketer pal had got used to the idea of my singleness while working or travelling; at lunch that afternoon, he saw what it looked like at the back end. What provoked this question perhaps, was its sheer normalcy.
The notion of singlehood as a possibly desired way of life came to me from an unusual source – my mother.
As I came into adulthood, I discovered that my mother’s love for the family and her generous sociability were tied in with a mind of her own, an empathetic, democratic spirit and untempered adventure-seeking fearlessness. She once told me that had she not been an obedient daughter to our Nani, she would never have married. She would have been happy, she thought, to spend her life in books, reading, writing and looking after the family around her in hometown Narsinghpur, Madhya Pradesh.
This was not what mothers usually told their daughters, but it stayed with me. That in the late-1950s, as a young woman, she had contemplated singlehood and was not self-conscious about sharing this. Plus the fact that if not for her adoration of, and responsibility towards, her mother, she would have been unafraid to go down that path, regardless of the boxes that women in the 1960s were being stuffed into to keep them in line. Before marrying my father in 1964, when she was 22, she had thought through an alternative life for herself.
This was in an age when single women from their late 20s onwards were usually slotted as either tragic or demonic; either wilting willows waiting to be rescued into marriage by an elderly widower, or “angry”, “frustrated”, vampish sisters-in-law to their brothers’ wives, the kind of characters still being trotted out on daily soaps. If my mother had had her way, she had been willing to contest and aim to reinvent this image. Wow. In the Mommy-DNA-lottery, I realised I’d struck the jackpot.
In hindsight, I accepted that the Nathan Astle conversation was only my parents doing their desi parental duty.
In fact, when I was around 16, my pragmatic mother had given me a choice. Did I want my father and her to look for a husband for me or would I find some fellow myself? If the former, she said, she would go about ensuring that I was trained into being a good wife. Cooking, housekeeping, consideration for others, and knowing when to compromise for the sake of the larger collective, aka Family. If I chose the latter route, she let it be known that I could not return weeping to my parents, aged 35, asking them to please, please find me a suitable groom.
The curious social engineering of arranged marriages had always appeared severely imbalanced to me; the heavy lifting was almost always supposed to be done by the women. My mother wasn’t surprised by my answer – please don’t take the trouble, I’ll manage.
I’d thought the business had been taken care of earlier, which is why Nathan and I were so blindsided that afternoon. Yet, looking at it from my parents’ point of view, they had no choice but to check on my marriage prospects again: My father, always patient and supportive of my life and career choices, would be retiring in a year and heading back to Allahabad where he came from.
I had taken a loan off them for a 482 sq ft apartment in Nerul, Navi Mumbai, and in the mid-1990s, it was not de rigueur for single, middle-class women to live by themselves, even if they owned the damn flat. The sprawling, loving arms of our family would be asking my parents the question about their daughter’s ‘future”, and no matter my modern education and its freedoms, some medieval questions had to be raised. And raised again.
My response was to cut off the just-meet-the-boy routine at its first, lone appearance.
There were phone conversations with concerned relatives, and even a few friends, about my stubborn refusal to go down that path. For about a month, maybe less, I remember reacting to the situation, “like a man”: I would come home late from office and not talk.
Arranged marriage to me, I told “well-wishers”, was like “eating through my nose”. If things didn’t work out in the singles-trying-to-double-up market, I thought I was ready to remain un“settled”. That position ignored the societal pressures that my parents would be put under, and also paid no heed to the accepted wisdom of a woman’s yearning for motherhood, or that other unanswerable: “Who will look after you in your old age?”
As urban societies evolve, throwing up new fissures in established relationships and giving rise to wellsprings of hidden alliances, that last question, we realise, could apply to everyone. Man, woman, single, hitched. More than ever the answer to who will look after you in your old age remains a 50-50 call. A 2011 Census statistic which revealed that there were 71 million single women in India, a 39 per cent increase from the turn of the new millennium, had me whooping with triumph, before I looked deeper. Even if you deduct the number of widowed, divorced or separated, the number of women who have never married, for whatever reason, is still formidable: 13.2 million in rural India and 12.3 million in urban India, a grand total of 25.2 million.
To arrive at a figure of the urban, economically independent single women whose stories are told in this book, we must slice and dice more. The 2011 Census found that the number of urban single women had gone up from 17.1 million in 2001 to 27 million in 2011. Of those 27 million, even if we assume that only 10 per cent are single by wild, wilful choice, it’s still 2.7 million women, the populations of Lithuania, Jamaica and Qatar. We are certainly not alone.
My mother was not the first woman I would know of who had thought about a life without children.
As time passed, more than one friend would tell me about the hard grind that motherhood and parenthood were. About the boldness of their aspirations being steadily bleached into a pastel of family expectations and sometimes incomplete contentment. Yet, very little of this reaches single women in their 20s or 30s. At that age all we are told about is the human instinct for mateship and then companionship (“It’s not about the sex, sometimes you just need someone to cuddle in the morning,” this too from a cricketer-pal) or the countdown of the female body clock and the terror of “alone”.
Cinema and popular culture appear to be driven by this inalienable, unshakeable truth with its Hollywood horror trope – you will die alone. Technically speaking, everyone dies alone, in their bodies and in their heads. The trick is to build a community while we’re on our way there.
What I could not understand was why no distinction was made between aching loneliness – which can swallow people whole even in large family groups – and the freedom of solitary calm. Why was it seen as too dangerous for women to even be offered a glimpse of the solitary (outside celibate nunhood, that is) before hardwiring us through adolescence into being carers and nurturers responsible for the propagation of the family/ clan/ human race?
Bringing up children never became a yearning for me, but this was not something you openly declared, as somehow it made you less of a woman. Childlessness came second on the list of misdemeanours for an Indian woman – after unmarried, that is. (New on the list in this twisted era of no-can-dos are love jihad or caste-proofed marriages.) Society – Indian, western, eastern – has only one cookie-cutter that women must fit themselves into. All the rest on offer to young adolescent women is merely a series of horror stories. How do you free yourself of this? How do you find yourself?
I accept that I am fortunate and privileged to be able to do what I want to do – stomp on the cookie-cutter, walk out of the bakery itself and pitch my tent elsewhere.
What I discovered is that there is a lot of free space in Elsewhere. When I moved into my first self-owned apartment in Navi Mumbai, aged 28, I didn’t feel I was being radical or brave or striking one for womanhood. I was merely creating a foothold in the city I was born in, worked in and loved. My parents braced themselves for having me turn up again, defeated by the Alone Monster, seeking rescue by the Companion. It was only a matter of time. I remember my father’s time limit as being six months tops (he denies having any such window, small or big) and my mother’s, 18 months (she has no such memory either).
Only after their first visits did they decide to stop fretting about my anticipated struggles against singlehood. The house was in order, tidy, looked after, running. It was a tiny ground floor 1BHK overlooking a small garden, determined as I was, like all Bombaywallas, to seek “tree views”. When people walking past its balcony peeked in, they often found a woman reading, watching TV, or eating while doing either.
My mother had armed me suitably; she filled a diary full of recipes and wrote a suggested schedule to keep my fridge full, my kitchen running, and my stomach sated. Neighbours were gently curious, but neither interfering nor judgemental. I invited friends over for weekend sleepovers and Sunday lunches.
Every morning, my train journey to work (when on time, I could always, every single day, grab a second class window seat facing the breeze) would take me over the vast, serene Vashi creek headlong into the noise and energy of the-then Bombay. At night on my return home, I could see and hear the crowd and the noise of the great city fall away behind the moving train. I could have lived there forever. I had friends and family all over Bombay, we would meet, work, celebrate, and then, whatever the duration of the journey, the trains would take me back to my castle.
Hostel life, both as student and working woman, was perfect training for self-reliance and being part of a community of friends who relied on each other.
To have my own patch in Bombay was validation and affirmation of how I wanted to live. In the three decades that have passed since, I have changed jobs and cities twice, travelled, remained in touch with a vast circle of friends and family – and dealt with having contracted multiple sclerosis. Due to which I was once utterly miserable about having to admit myself to hospital (only because I stupidly didn’t reach out and ask any of my many friends to accompany me) but still enjoyed the utter, unfettered freedom of being single.
After the MS began to play itself out, my parents moved in with me, and that is how we live now, settling into patterns and habits. My father has got drawn into home renovations for two residences, one in Navi Mumbai and the other in Noida. I do not argue with my mother’s methods in the running of the house and kitchen. Independence married inter-dependence, and it works fine. If I have to identify when I became more or less sure about not wanting to “settle” for the sake of “settling”, it was when I moved into my tiny flat in Navi Mumbai. It may sound like the heresy of the arrogant, but that place and that time gave me the chance to ask a question of Marriage itself – what is it you offer me in exchange for turning away from this life?
In my profession as a sports journalist, being a woman was the first marker of oddness. There weren’t any such around when I began in 1989; our numbers began to grow slowly in the early 1990s, and for the better part of the decade, trying to gain acceptance as a working professional amongst athletes and administrators was a priority. As time passed, being single may have been noted by the industry, but only a very small slice commented on my singleness.
For the majority, maybe I was just a deviant to begin with, anyway, so singlehood was only to be expected.
Once, in my 20s, a senior journalist asked me if I was “interested” in starting a conversation about marriage with an “interested” fellow pro, whose name I was not told. I politely declined. Across the years, another media friend asked me repeatedly about why I was still single. I would be linked to single men known to us, and I dutifully laughed at the many jokes that were cracked. Questions often floated through from a variety of sources: “You haven’t met anyone?” “Haven’t you met nyyyyvann you like?” “Ohh, you don’t like boys?” “Do you like (involuntary, pale-faced, shudder) girls?”
Facts first. I lurve boys, more accurately, men. (And yo, you go, girls who like girls.) Men who don’t take themselves too seriously can make you laugh; the knee-knocking ones who make my knees knock; the politically-incorrect good souls (some, not all) over the politically-correct deep thinkers who (some not all) it is later proved, eventually want the women of their dreams to be dreamy chapatti makers. But – and it’s an epic all caps BUT – I don’t feel fervently compelled to be hooked-up, coupled or married to them. Nothing against the institution, may it long prosper and make millions deliriously happy, but as I’ve grown older, I realise it’s not an institution I want to sign myself into.
When compared to the western world, I’ve always found India to be a far easier place to grow old in, single.
The questions stop post-35ish and you are then allowed to just be – solo, slightly loco, we who may or may not become “burdens” on familial branches, and the less they get in your way, the better. Out in the developed world, the pressure of a Friday night date or any kind of date any time, or a “partner” as the measure of an individual’s social success seems like a relentless source of anxiety. In a way, single women are like solo travellers and the world, like the travel industry as it once seemed, finds them hard to handle or even logistically cope with.
This hit home when I lived in Australia for a couple of months while on a fellowship, in 2013. Want to go to the Great Barrier Reef for a mad single day trip? Pairs only. Want to travel to Uluru and need a single room? Not possible. Pay for two, or travel with someone.
To be honest, having travelled extensively on work, I now prefer travelling in company, with plans, thoughts, experiences, stresses and costs shared. From among my oldest, closest friends whom I went to college with, I am the only singleton. We’ve known each other for more than thirty-four years and I know I have lucked out with them. They are my posse, my long-distance entourage, the keepers of secrets, their non-judgementalism consistent, their cheerleading reality-checked, their spouses still locked out of our now-infrequent but still sacred pyjama parties, just like when we were 16.
We joke about racing our wheelchairs in retirement homes, with them ticking me off for inappropriately eyeing disreputable, lost-cause 85 year-old men. Everyone needs them, friends who knew you before you put on your armour and mask and headed into the working world. Which is where single women collect fellow travellers and comrades and add to their citadel; I have found them in hostels, in offices, during work travels, while moving cities.
We connect and re-connect, and now that the majority are into our 40s and 50s, out of shape, beat-up, menopausal, cranky, we talk about how we will handle life slowing down, sharing advice and tips. In our heads, we are no older than somewhere between 16 and 26.
The benefits of being married, I have joked, is having bed-tea served to you on some mornings.
The benefit of being single, I tell those who still ask is, “See, I spared two families from being miserable.” The happily married, though, make me joyful. As a serial attender of family-and-friend-weddings, I fully appreciate that it is they who maintain the order and demographic balance of the world, a sizeable number of them doing the needful already. I welcome the arrival of children and enjoy watching them grow into entertaining, argumentative versions of the people I have known and love.
A 2011 book, Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers, and All Women Who Love Kids by Melanie Notkin gave the world an acronym: PANK (Professional Aunt No Kids). I find it a bit limited, not fully describing the splendour and freedom of singledom.
In any case, I think the adjectives sometimes used around us, a little churlishly, are ‘irresponsible” “selfish” and “scared.” Whatever. I humbly suggest that our contributions to society are slightly more-wide ranging – answering the 2 a.m. phone call; discussing world issues and gossip; offering shoulders to cry on; standing in as nth hour baby-minders or housekeepers or cat feeders. We are the aunts (and uncles) who hand out goodies to nephews and nieces and kids of friends, only to find “return gifts” falling into our laps years later. Like the time in London when, reaching for my wallet in a hip Soho restaurant, my niece sitting across me gave me the gold-standard millennial eye roll and said, languidly dismissive, “Masi, please…”
I think of India’s single women across generations as being redecorators, reshapers, renovators, of a sort.
Of the rooms and boxes in which not only women, but even men, people at large, have always been told where and how they must live. If my friend’s question about home décor startled me into imagining my life from the outside, another niece’s response (my last count of nephews and nieces via cousins hit 26) showed me what a new generation saw. My niece was buzzed, she said, to see my name on a name-plate outside my flat. She found the sight cool in its humdrumness, like what she was used to seeing – her father or her friends’ fathers’ names outside their offices and homes. Then, one day, her aunt’s name outside hers. Just like that.
“Stomping On The Cookie Cutter” by Sharda Ugra, excerpted with permission from Single By Choice: Happily Unmarried Women!, edited by Kalpana Sharma, Women Unlimited.