It’s interesting how a random Google search, ‘unmarried single’ throws up results that mostly pertain to women and mothers. A gender-specific phenomenon that is defining current times, it is indicative that unmarried singles, especially women, exist in large numbers and there are a lot of conversations around the same. Between 2001 and 2011, there was a 39 per cent increase in the number of single women, according to Census 2011.
A recent book — Single By Choice: Happily Unmarried Women! (Women Unlimited) — edited by journalist Kalpana Sharma, and which is an anthology of essays by 13 women from varied backgrounds has struck a chord with women of all age groups. Looking at singledom from different experiences, the essays share a common sentiment that “being single is not a grim business”.
Exploring a conversation on marriage, career, family, support, caregiving roles and responsibilities, indianexpress.com spoke to urban, independent young millennial women who have no plan of tying the knot anytime soon despite pressure from family.
Sports journalist Sharda Ugra, who penned down one of the essays, mentions in the book, “what are you planning to do in life?” was one of the initial questions she was asked by her father.
Asked in hushed tones or framed in code words — marriage questions range from “what are your future plans?” to “what’s next?”
“When are you going to settle down?” is one of those disturbing queries, as if I were a particulate drifting around, unwilling to settle and form a sediment at the bottom of a riverbed. Never one to have bought into the idea of a marriage being a form of arrangement, the simple fact is that I want to find a significant other all by myself,” quips 25-year-old Dr Ranganayaki Narasimhan.
“Coming from an orthodox family, I have been dealing with family and friends asking me to marry for the past four years,” mentions Shruthi Sundaram, a 26-year-old environmental engineer. She says that she is not ready to take up one more responsibility — marriage.
“I am still learning about myself and exploring my wants. Having had a lot of responsibilities from an early age, the idea of marriage seems to be another big one which I don’t want to be bogged down with. The society never defines marriage as being in love and living with your soul partner but is seen as a way of reducing the burden of ageing parents,” she states as a matter of fact.
Concurs Wedita Pandey, 26, a Gurugram-based communication consultant and says that she prefers to wait rather than “end up making a wrong choice”.
“Currently, I want to pursue my passion, do well in my career and then plan for marriage as it is a big responsibility. Also, I need time for myself in order to completely understand myself and the kind of a partner I would want to get married to, so that I do not land up making a wrong choice and then regret later on,” she says.
Interestingly, a study found that married men in the US are more likely than single men to be among the nation’s top one per cent of earners indicating that such men benefit more from the unpaid labour that women provide. ‘On an average, married women spend 2.95 hours daily on housework compared to 2.41 hours for unmarried women, which is a difference of about 32 minutes every day or almost four hours every week’, reads the study.
Marriage, like many understand is “a social activity entered into through a public act, religious or traditional ceremony” and reflects the purpose, character, and customs of the society in which it is found. However, in India, marriage assumes the meaning of family honour and is closely tied with the idea of a family legacy. Other reasons for tying the knot also include social pressure, “safeguarding chastity” or for the sake of siblings.
Then there is a thought of unmarried single women as ‘cranky spinsters, who lived with their 100 cats!’, observes Aparna Samuel Balasundaram, a relationship coach and psychotherapist. “There have always been hushed tones of ‘poor thing, did not get married and is left on the shelf’ and a negative connotation attached to the label of being a spinster,” she mentions.
For 23-year-old Elora Monalisha who works as a BPO professional in Jaipur, “career and family come first”. “I have spoken to my parents about it. I can’t be dedicated to two different families. I have my family, career, a social life and I get to make my decisions with absolute freedom which wouldn’t have been the case otherwise,” says Monalisha.
But doesn’t she wonder that her “concept of marriage” might change once she is around the “marriageable age” which usually ranges between 24-30 years for urban women in India, when her peers and cousins might be getting hitched? “I do understand the pressure that comes with such a decision but I feel it is something absolutely personal and until I actually want to take the plunge, I choose to remain like I am,” adds Monalisha.
Notably, as per United Nations statistics, the mean age of marriage in India as of 2011 was approximately 21 years. This is higher than the mean age of 19.3 years in 1991.
Renowned lawyer and columnist, Vandana Shah who is also a relationship expert, is often privy to such conversations as she has rented one of her flats to three working women in their mid-20s. “One is a jewellery designer, the other one is a fashion designer and the third lady is a lawyer. I happen to notice how with education, work, living outside their hometowns and the passion to prove themselves, these girls and many like them are opting to stay away from the ‘M word’. Times have definitely changed for urban young women and they no longer consider marriage to be the ‘ultimate destination’, as was previously thought of,” Shah told indianexpress.com.
From putting off marriage until the “Mr Right” comes along to taking care of family and careers, a growing number of women feel that education, freedom, social circle, growing consciousness around their rights and even looking at drudgery that surrounds married life is a good enough reason to stay afloat.
“Marriage might be sacred and all. But abuse and domestic violence have demeaned this institution. Then, how do you expect single women to follow this institution when you can’t set an example? Yes, there are many good marriages. Congratulations! But there are also so many violent and abusive marriages. Abusive, here, doesn’t just mean physical violence. It also means emotional abuse,” points out Sarah Jacob, 26, a development sector professional.
The idea of ‘settling down’ is subjective, feels 37-year-old Shally. “In the Indian context, marriage is more of a cultural norm which is believed to be the key to happiness. It was always believed that an unmarried person of any sex is always ‘unhappy’,” she says.
Recalling how earlier, a single female boss was looked down upon as a “single-frustrated woman”, she says that there has been a sea change, “especially when it comes to assigning adjectives”. “Perhaps, single women were happy then, too. It’s just that we never sought to see that side,” she opines.
But is the society coming to terms with such a change? A parent who didn’t wish to be named suggested that “education, work, financial stability are fine, but marriage definitely completes one, is a safety net, a cushion when the immediate family are no longer there”.
27-year-old Priyamvada Mangal, photographer and yoga coach from Mumbai ascertains that “everyone has their own way of thinking”. “It didn’t matter to me that all my cousins who are even younger were getting married. I think everyone has their own way of thinking and I really want to focus on myself now. I also probably don’t think a financial care provider can make us feel safe. Even if it’s a little, I want to make something out of my life on my own,” says Mangal.
However, one would find it difficult to escape matchmaker relatives, curious neighbours and ever-optimistic parents even at the age of 50, feels Shally, adding that “but then one finds her way to negotiate”.
Rather than seeing the unmarried single status as a rebellious or revolutionary act against marriage, Balasundaram, sees this more as an expression of an evolutionary act. “One that is in response to the changing societal dynamics and norms around a woman having and exercising her choices, being confident of her worth beyond just attaining the role of wife-hood, being financially independent, knowing her mind and having the courage and support to make an informed decision, without being judged harshly for being single,” she says.