Can Single Women In Indian Books Live Happily Ever After?

While many books, films and TV shows look at singleness as a temporary state of being, a handful of Indian novels explore the lives of women who are not wives, girlfriends or mothers.
Representative image.
Representative image.

In Eunice de Souza’s Dangerlok, Rina Ferreira, a middle-aged poet and professor, remembers the advice a nun gave her when she was young: “You must marry or become a nun, otherwise you will be lonely when you are old, and there will be no one to look after you.” By the turn of the millennium, when this hilarious novella is set, the nun’s well-meaning advice is quite redundant. Options had widened since then, Rina, who lives alone in a dodgy building in Bombay, notes. “She could have gone to the Gulf and made a lot of money. Or she could keep parrots. Or sit quietly at home and read detective stories… She has had enough debacles. Same saga, different names, as her friend Vera would say, briefly and brutally.”

In the decade that followed Dangerlok’s publication in 2002, there was a 39% increase in the number of single women — unmarried, separated, divorced, widowed — in India, from 51.2 million in 2001 to 71 million women in 2011. In the years since then, despite a very perceptible increase in the visibility of single women, there continues to be that same old, almost primal, fear underscoring the growth of this demographic — “you will be lonely when you are old” — which demands a justification for singleness as a choice. Even to oneself.

This fear is reflected in popular culture — where films, television and books, when exploring the subject, focus on the search for love. Or moments of recovery and self-growth following the end of relationships. Singleness is almost always seen as a temporary state of being.

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But a handful of Indian novels, like Dangerlok, explore the lives of women who are not wives, girlfriends or mothers. These female characters are neither overly concerned with the anxieties of a search for love, nor do they provide any solutions. They offer something more important: the countless possibilities of individual lives and what they are filled with, in the absence of long-term partners or children. These novels portray, in dignified fullness, the dissimilitudes of women’s singleness.

Most women in Anita Desai’s 1980 novel Clear Light of Day — which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize — are single: Bim, also a middle-aged professor, who lives with her disabled brother in their family home in old Delhi; their widowed aunt Mira, a distant relative of their mother’s who earns her keep by caring for other people’s children — her frustrations never articulated eventually find an outlet in alcohol; and their neighbours, the traditional Misra girls who, divorced by their too-modern husbands soon after marriage, give music and dance lessons to children, support their wastrel brothers.

At first, it almost feels like we’re supposed to feel bad for Bim, the one who got left behind: a middle-aged woman in a crumbling house. But through her sister Tara’s sometimes envious eyes, we see the beauty in Bim’s life. Prematurely aged due to family stress, now she “had arrived at an age when she could be called handsome.” Tara, who married a diplomat and moved abroad, is surprised with the ease of Bim’s self-assuredness and the admiration she commands from her students and from men. Bim, Tara realises, has found everything she wanted in life — without going anywhere to find it. But Tara’s husband points out, upending the ridiculous assumption that women without partners or children must fill their empty lives with whatever they can find to combat loneliness: “She did not find it, she made it.” She was “contended enough. No more and no less than most of us.”

There is a difference between “aching loneliness — which can swallow people whole even in large family groups — and the freedom of solitary calm,” sports journalist Sharda Ugra writes in Single By Choice: Happily Unmarried Women, a collection of 13 essays edited by Kalpana Sharma. In her essay, Ugra remembers a friend who visited her and was “half baffled, half bemused as he acknowledged curtains, crockery, photos, music, books” — markers of fullness of life — in her apartment, which did not look like “the box in which single Indian women were usually housed.”

In that box, Ugra writes, “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.”

It is a deliberate choice for very few people — and it isn’t important whether it is voluntary or not, says filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra. “There’s an appearance of singleness, across the country, across many, many different strata of society,” she says.

It’s not just the urban woman, “there is an entire Ekal Mahila movement that has been happening. There are women who are single for a number of reasons. Women who have chosen to be single during the feminist movements of the 70s and 80s, which were very strong in some rural or small town spaces. I’ve met those women, and I find it remarkable that they did it because it was not an easy choice in their context. So I feel like there are a number of ways in which people have chosen a life of singleness or found themselves in a life of singleness.”

The problem then is, that when you choose or find yourself on a “path that is not commonly chosen by people, you don’t always have a precedent for what that life might look like,” she adds.

It doesn’t help, as journalist Kavitha Rao wrote in a 2016 essay for Buzzfeed, that Indian women are never taught to be alone. This is particularly strange since women often outlive men, and inevitably spend years, maybe decades, on their own.

Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995), also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is best known for its depiction of the consequences of the Emergency, but it is also an important account of widowhood. Its protagonist Dina Dalal, determined to never remarry, shows the perseverance of a young childless widow to carve out an independent life for herself over the years. She works as a seamstress, a hairstylist and a baker. Eventually, middle-aged Dina, unable to sew due to her weakening eyesight, hires two tailors and keeps a boarder, a friend’s son, to supplement her family income. During the Emergency, they become her makeshift family.

When her landlord discovers she is subletting the apartment, she pretends to be outraged at the implication that she, a respectable single woman, would let a man live in the house with her — even though it’s true, she is. When he accuses her of running a business in the building, she pretends the tailor is her husband. The mendacity is obvious and contradictory, but she is able to lie through her teeth — even while her landlord sees through it — because lies are tools to protect her vulnerability. These are, we realise, acceptable ways to draw boundaries in a society that relishes the shaming of its women.

Later in the novel, when Dina is alone once again, she finds that “the return of solitude” was not quite what she expected it to be. “These many years I made a virtue of inescapable reality, she thought, calling it peace and quiet. Still, how was it possible to feel lonely again after living alone most of her life? Didn’t the heart and mind learn anything? Could one year do so much damage to her resilience?” It is not damage, it is growth, we ultimately learn when Dina despite her changed circumstances still carves out space for her independence and for her “family”.

Akhila, in Anita Nair’s 2001 novel Ladies’ Coupe, also finds herself single by circumstance and spends decades waiting for her real life to begin. Like Bim, she has to take over as the head of the family. But Akhila resents her family for conveniently ignoring the desires she is too ashamed to articulate, and for seeing her as if she had “ceased to be a woman and had already metamorphosed into a spinster”. On a train journey, she finds an answer to the question: can a woman live alone? She meets five other women in the ladies’ compartment of the train, and their life stories make her reconsider the rejection of her own happiness.

Nair remembers feeling hesitant when she was writing the novel, thinking that it was ironic that she, a married woman, was writing about single women. She eventually realized, however, that even a woman who play the roles of mother or wife or sister is “ultimately pretty much on her own”. “That’s what I wanted to talk about,” she says.

In an essay in the Guardian, while noting that “data shows that more women have begun to realize that there are far worse things than dying alone”, Keli Goff writes that “marriage has historically presented women with two options, neither good: marry a man and sacrifice your autonomy and career goals to become financially dependent on him. Or marry a man and maintain your own career but be prepared to have a ‘second shift’ career taking care of him and the home.” Single women, she writes, now realize “that they can channel the energy that for so long went into uplifting men into instead lifting themselves.”

In India, Vohra says, single women are not a gigantic number but form a culturally significant minority. “People are taking a great interest in themselves and their inner lives. And walking down paths that resonate more truly to their inner lives has ended up in diversifying the meaning of singleness.” And yet, contemporary fiction doesn’t seem to reflect this. All of the novels mentioned above were published nearly 20 years ago or earlier.

It’s something that surprises Manasi Subramaniam, senior commissioning editor at Penguin Random House India. “It can’t be such a big gap,” she says. “Everyone we know is single.”

Recent Indian fiction has explored women’s loneliness within marriages — the appearance of singleness — like in Ratika Kapur’s Private Life of Mrs Sharma (a woman in a long-distance marriage has an affair) or Anuradha Roy’s All The Lives We Never Lived (a woman leaves her marriage and child to pursue art), Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s Yogini (a woman’s dissatisfaction with domesticity). But there aren’t any notable novels that delve into the lives of single women unless they are engaged in navigating the logistics of love.

Indian and Indian-descent writers have mostly not paid much attention to the subject, says writer Jenny Bhatt. “I wish we had Indian novels like The Country Life by Rachel Cusk, The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, Severance by Ling Ma, Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse, An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine — all about single women not overly preoccupied about ‘the one’.” Yet Bhatt points out that internationally as well, similar trends remain. “None of these have gotten as much acclaim as say, this year’s Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, which is all about women and sex and relationships. A very good book, of course, but still.”

“Even the writers who are now hailed as the great millennial writers of our times, I feel that having a relationship is very much a preoccupation for all of them,” says Subramaniam. In an anthology, Eleven Ways to Love, that Subramaniam commissioned last year, the last essay by Preeti Vangani is about giving up the search and instead learning to love oneself. “I learnt to embrace the chaos of singleness as an active choice, rather than as a consolation prize in lieu of a stable and committed married life,” she writes.

But singlehood is not yet aspirational, Subramaniam says, which could be a reason why it isn’t reflected as such in fiction. Another reason, says Bhatt, could be that “our novelists are still exploring many different ways to express all that has been repressed, unspoken, dismissed for so long about their relationships (and how our society regards women and their relationships)”. “I don’t see much wrong with that,” she adds, “except that...it’s happening at the expense of exploring women’s singlehood.”

That is true of novels about relationships, but even works that focus on other things — genre fiction, crime, for example — women characters still seemed to be defined by who they are with, or singleness as a symptom of their dysfunctionality. An exception to this almost universal rule is Madhuri Vijay’s JCB Prize-winning new book The Far Field, which addresses the issue by not addressing it at all. It’s a novel about Shalini, a 24-year-old woman from Bangalore, who goes to Kashmir looking for a man who had once been her mother’s friend. Her singleness is never directly remarked upon. Nobody tries to make sense of it. It just is.

Unlike Rina Ferreira.

In Dangerlok, the single poet-professor wonders how long it will take someone to analyse why she has bought herself parrots. “She has already been subjected to analyses of why she smokes. She was weaned too early. She misses oral pleasures. It is a short step from the lack of oral pleasures to the lack of a man, and so she is not surprised when some old student says apropos the parrots that she is glad her teacher has someone to look after. She is livid for an entire evening after the remark, which probably proves all the theories right.”

“Same saga, different names,” her friend Vera says. We need more sagas, new ones.