The Power of One

What is it to be a single woman in the small town or sleepy village? The struggle is similar — fending off social pressure and stifling moral codes — just more intense. Five women tell us how they found and kept their independence.

Written by Apurva | New Delhi | Published: March 4, 2012 3:37 am

What is it to be a single woman in the small town or sleepy village? The struggle is similar — fending off social pressure and stifling moral codes — just more intense. Five women tell us how they found and kept their independence.

Shampali Maulick,34 and Bidisha Chattopadhyay,34

Konnagar,West Bengal

Sheaves of press releases,a new Bollywood glossy,and ballpoint pens strewn around — Shampali Maulick’s workstation is comfortingly familiar to a journalist minting words on a Monday afternoon. Dressed in a checked shirt,non-fussy denims and sporting a crop of short hair,Maulick,a senior arts and entertainment journalist with Bengali daily Pratidin,has little affinity for the many aspects of female vanity — which includes flaunting Mr Right. Except for the fact that Maulick hails from Konnagar,a quiet township about 20 km from Kolkata,she doesn’t have many complaints about how her life has shaped up. “There’s a certain sense of indifference in Kolkata. Back in my hometown,the interference is more. People who have seen me grow up are used to my tomboyish ways. Others mostly stare unabashedly at me. Since I’m perceived as a quiet,serious sort of a person,most people don’t walk up and ask me why I am dressed like this,” says Maulick. Curiosity mostly takes the shape of concern as neighbours enquire if it is safe to return home at 10.30 in the night,without a man chaperoning her. “The town mostly closes down by then and I take a late train back home after the day’s work,” says Maulick.

If you are a tomboy,single,and an after-10 pm creature,the Bengali middle-class vocabulary will dismiss you as “modern”. Maulick’s friend and colleague Bidisha Chattopadhyay,a sari connoisseur and photography enthusiast,agrees. “I love to live life like a free spirit. But for the people around me,the idea of a post-30 woman not having to pack lunch for a husband and kids is still a big-city affliction,” says Chattopadhyay. “I don’t feel the need of a man to complete me intellectually or emotionally. Something I find very difficult to explain to curious aunts and concerned neighbours.”

While Maulick mostly skirts questions about singlehood with a polite smile,Chattopadhyay has at times succumbed to anger. “Once,family friends tried to set me up with a man,who called me after seeing my profile picture on Facebook. I was so angry that I put up a horribly Photoshopped picture of myself on FB,” says Chattopadhyay.

Maulick,though,has discovered that the local trains can equip you to handle curious neighbours better: “When I was growing my hair,my co-passengers asked me not to cut it. And when I did,they smiled approvingly saying they had always felt I look better with short hair,though they don’t know why I keep it that way. I ignore the suggestion and enjoy the compliment instead.”

Vijaylakshmi Sharma,23

Jhodinda,Rajasthan

When Vijaylakshmi Sharma’s parents announced they had found her a boy to wed,she asked them to sit in the mandap themselves. She wanted to continue studying. It was 2002 and Sharma was 13 years old. For her defiance,she was locked in a room for three days and shouted at constantly while relatives suggested she be “exorcised”.

In Jhodinda,a village some 80 km from Jaipur where she lives,Sharma clearly recalls that episode. “Marriage sounded so absurd. I just knew I was against it and wanted to study and become a teacher,” she says. But she has become more. In the 10 years since she stopped her own marriage,Sharma has helped stop more than 16 child marriages not only in her own village,but in eight villages around Jhodinda.

It was the death of her friend Mamta that changed Sharma’s view forever. “She was my neighbour and classmate and was married when she was 12. A year later,she died following complications during pregnancy. I vowed then that I would never be married till I chose to,” Sharma says. For five years now,she has built a network of young girls in Jhodinda and its neighbouring villages.

Her parents have supported her campaigns. Her mother Kamla Devi says,“I was 13 when I was married and it was only natural that my daughter be wed too. Luckily for us,she is stubborn. When we think about the work she is doing for women and that we are a part of it,I feel we have achieved something.” Sharma will complete her MA this year,the only girl to do so from the village,and intends to continue studying and get a PhD.

Now 23 years old,she is still unmarried,which in Jhodinda and most of Rajasthan is borderline blasphemy. Her father,Shravan Lal Sharma says,“She made us see the error of our ways and we support her all the way,but many in the village still believe something is either wrong with her,or with us.” Village elders always greet the family with a scowl and unsavoury remarks,but for the family this has become routine. “When she turned 18 and was still unmarried,boys from the village would write slogans on the temple walls and village parapets that said,‘Nobody wants to marry Vijaylakshmi’,” Kamla Devi recalls. Her husband would sneak away at night with a bucket of water and soap to wash the walls.

So how does one stop child marriages in a traditional society? “In such rural areas,there are no secrets. I usually find out when a child marriage is going to take place and my group intervenes,” she says. It always begins with speaking to the bride-to-be. “We explain the legality of it and that all women have a choice. We then try and speak to both families. It is hard to sustain an argument with a group of girls who use logic. We usually win,” she explains with a laugh.

But marriage is inescapable,admits Sharma. “I know I will eventually have to get married. But not before I meet him first. I don’t care about looks or money,he must have the same ideals as I,” she says. And when might such a man come along? “Who cares,I am willing to wait.”

Paramjit Kaur Landran,40

Landran,Punjab

In a typical Punjabi rural household,Paramjit Kaur Landran’s 70-year-old mother should have been a very worried woman. Her youngest daughter is educated,intelligent and 40 years old. But she is still unmarried.

In an environment where being single for a woman is a social handicap even today,Paramjit is glad that her mother has not given in to the panic that wells up with well-meaning visits from neighbours. “I don’t want to get married. That phase when my mother would have relatives coming to her and goading her to talk marriage is thankfully over. Well,almost. There are still some overenthusiastic relatives who tell me that I am not getting any younger and I should think of my future before it is too late. My answer to them remains the same as it was when I was in my 20s. I am much happier than several married women I know.”

The youngest of four siblings,it seems Paramjit had decided early on to stand out from her surroundings. Unlike her two elder sisters and brother,she wanted to study beyond school and become a lawyer. She was the first do so in Landran,a village near Chandigarh.

“By the time I was 25,I was practising in the Kharar courts. My father died when I was still in college,leaving a very worried mother behind. But,by then,I was on my feet and financially independent. That is what helped me say no to marriage,” she says. “I was not against marriage per se. Only that I did not want to be pressured into getting married because I was at the right age or because my mother had a social obligation.”

More keen to take up social causes in the village than be like other young educated girls awaiting a good match,Paramjit was elected as the village sarpanch in 2003. “Being a lawyer and speaking in courtrooms made me bold and outspoken and before I knew it I was in the thick of village politics,” she says. When she was elected as a member of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee from Mohali last year,Paramjit decided to suffix the name of the village to her name — something which only important men do in Punjab. “Why not? When I interact with men,I am their equal,if not better.”

Independence,status and authority have come to her without the trappings — and obligations — of marriage. If she has missed the companionship of men,it does not seem to have been a striking absence. “There would be hundreds of good men out there,but,over the years,even when I found a person well-matched in terms of education and social standing,a closer interaction made me realise how different we were. As one grows older,one’s ideas and thoughts become so fixed that it is difficult to adjust with anyone at the level that marriage requires,” she says.

To be single is to be free of the cramped spaces of relationships,she feels. “Most of my friends envy me. I have no responsibilities to shoulder,no children to rear and there are no bindings. I lead an independent life. I come and go as I please. The best part is that I think for myself and take my own decisions. I am what they call footloose and fancy-free.”

Devender Pal Kaur,40

Ranchi,Jharkhand

On the phone,Devender Pal Kaur is quick to correct the careless speaker,“Mein Ms Kaur hu,Mrs nahi.” Kaur brings the same sense of pride and independence to her job of agriculture manager at Krishi Gram Vikas Kendra,an NGO working for the development of Jharkhand. A Master’s in agriculture from Rajendra Agricultural University,Samastipur,Bihar,Kaur runs a soil-testing lab in Rukka,a township just outside Ranchi.

With responsibilities ranging from seed production to coordinating the “world vegetable centre”,Kaur covers 34 villages of the state. But she continues to be partial to the soil-testing lab. She says,“When it was first established,no one knew about soil testing,Farmers feel they know what is best for their land. But we told them to try our recommendations on a small patch first. The results convinced them.”

Like all unmarried woman,Kaur has had to grapple with her share of parochial landlords and nosy neighbours. But she is happy in her house in Ranchi,which is 15km from her workplace. She says,“In Bihar,I used to have problems,as people there didn’t have a broad mentality. Here,tribals are more open-minded. It’s not important to them if I am married or not.”

As her father passed away when she was still in college,Kaur is accustomed to a life of both responsibility and independence. She says,“People thought my being unmarried was a weakness. But now I know it is my strength.”

Over the decades,the prying comments have reduced but not ceased. But she continues to be bothered by peoples’ favourite question: why haven’t you married? Or the more probing,“Look-wise you are above average,so what happened?”

Content with a routine of work and of determined will,she says,“Jo ho na tha woh ho gaya. Mujhe koi shikayat nahi hai.”

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