A couple of months ago, actor Emma Watson was in the news for re-phrasing the experience of singledom as being self-partnered. Watson presumably wanted to give a positive spin to the many insinuations that surround single women from their late 20s onwards. While one can debate over the ‘wokeness’ or vapidity of a term that is still tethered to the idea of a partnership, the fact remains that singledom is not simply the absence of a partner or a lifelong relationship with one’s own self.
Single by Choice: Happily Unmarried Women!, edited by Kalpana Sharma, is an anthology of essays by 13 unfazed and happily unmarried women whose age ranges from the mid-20s to 60 and above. They are writers, scientists, journalists, lawyers, academicians and entrepreneurs who bring a range of issues, perspectives and experiences that accompany the lives of single women in India. It is a disarming book, simply written without ever being simplistic in its musings and reflections.
Single women occupy a curious place in our society. They are objects of curiosity, pity, disappointment, salacious gossip and resentment. The hegemonic image of a single woman is that of one living a solitary life with no sunshine. Thus, one of the things amplified in the book, starting with sports journalist Sharda Ugra’s essay, is the explicit and implicit wonder that friends and acquaintances display when they see an aesthetically pleasing, fully functional home. The presumption that marriage and family is the fulcrum of a meaningful life and a lack of it must have been borne out of a tragedy is conveniently put to rest.
Singlehood, for these women, is a choice. One can enjoy solitude as much as being in the company of friends, family and lovers. For social worker and designer Laila Tyabji, it is not a life of solitary confinement. Neither is it about being ‘anti-men’ or perennially hosting bacchanalian parties. The essays, through their quotidian experiences, bring out the lived reality of single life, which is a normal state of being for these women. Asmita Basu and Sherna Gandhy rightly point out that the decision to be single need not be read as something grand (and may there come a day when a book like this would be redundant).
Unravelling over the course of the 13 essays is a poignant and humorous take on what the new ‘normal’ is. The idea that women can have fulfilling lives unto themselves, the idea of family that expands and extends beyond blood ties, that not all women are natural wives with a maternal instinct but can still be the most fun aunts. More importantly, it is a candidly guilt-free assertion of a choice to not be embroiled in the drudgeries of domesticity but to shape a domestic life the way one wants to.
The strength of an anthology like this lies in its overarching narrative of empathy. It fully recognises that being single by choice in India is a matter of privilege. The women recognise and acknowledge that singledom in India is contingent upon having a supportive family, economic and social privileges, financial independence and more significantly, the privilege of living in an urban milieu. The essays do not undermine or look down upon the choices that other women have made of marriage but gently nudge the reader to a world of alternative possibilities and how that is as valid a choice of wanting children and a family.
The book decidedly chronicles the narrative of privileged, city-educated, well-travelled women hailing from privileged backgrounds. It is precisely for this reason that Tamil Dalit writer Bama’s autobiographical essay becomes such an important read. Being a single woman in urban India is challenging enough but those problems pale in comparison when you are confronted with the monstrous realities of caste and living in small-town India, where single women are an anomaly. Bama outlines the heart-breaking realities of humiliation and loathing that she was subjected to for bearing the double burden of her gender and her caste.
The logistics of renting a house, figuring out post-operative recuperation on one’s own, being extra careful as to not come across as sexually available because you are single and thereby deliberately dressing down, charting your commute in places with minimal transport and safety infrastructure, all the while battling gossip and scandalous conjectures, show just how much of an uphill task it is to live a life of one’s choice if you are a Dalit woman in India.
But the beauty of Bama’s essay, which finds resonance in other essays, is how she affirms life. The choice to be a writer, single and untethered and deriving strength and resilience from their work make the brickbats worth it. It is a book that will have many takers. It is a reassuring anthology for women who are toying with the idea of singledom or anybody who is just curious. We have all heard tales of marital and familial bliss but Single By Choice is a reflection of certain women who made a different choice. The result is an honest reflection that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
In her heart-warming essay, Ugra welcomes the growing trend of single women as “redecorators…[and] reshapers”. The women doff their hat to the previous generations that enabled them to make the choices they made while being optimistic about how it will get easier for the women who come after them.
At the same time, the book does not shy away from discussing the many insecurities that accompany the experience of singledom.
Aditi Bishnoi’s essay, which lucidly captures the road to singledom punctuated with moments of self-doubt and vulnerabilities, makes for a reassuring read. Bishnoi’s reflections on whether she will regret being all by herself as she grows old, will she mind the idea of being a third wheel when going out with friends or whether she will be up to being a single mother are concerns that are all too intimate and real. She states that there is no right answer to whether one should be single or not but if there was a moment for women to live life on their own terms, to marry or not, it is now.
Single by Choice makes for an easy read, almost like a friendly companion that’s not too pushy. However, the cover does a great disservice to a book that is carefully curated and candid with a sense of humour. The publishers should consider replacing this insipid jacket cover in later editions. One suggestion: the tongue-in-cheek “Advice on Marriage to Young Ladies” by a “Suffragette Wife” on the inside page would make for a pretty witty cover.
Leaving the aesthetics aside, Single by Choice is a welcome attempt at redefining the normal, one decision, one choice at a time.