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February 14, 2017

As She Likes It: Are Indian Women Taking Control of Their Love Lives?

Text by Tina Dastur. Illustration by Surasti Puri

We navigate through present-day relationships…

With great knowledge comes great realisation. For women today, self-worth and personal happiness have taken precedence over societal expectations. The days of scrolling through inflated profiles on shaadi.com has given way to swiping left and right on Tinder, and matching kundlis has now become less important than satisfying sexual appetites, as we choose our own paths when it comes to love.

Live and let live-in
Imagine finding out that your absent-minded spouse completely disregarded your OCD as he squeezed the toothpaste from the middle of the tube or worse, that lazybones left the toilet seat up. Anaita Chana (name changed), 31, who works at Accenture in Hyderabad, began dating her now-husband Rajiv Nanji (name changed), 32, while they were both working at Google in 2011. Two years later, she moved in with him. Reminiscing about those days, she says, “Every morning, after Rajiv had a shower, the mirror would steam up and like a total diva, he would absolutely have to run his fingers over the glass and clear a spot. It was annoying because it would leave water stains. Nowadays, he waits for me to notice just to study my reaction!” Fortunately for them, Nanji’s childish compulsion wasn’t a deal-breaker.

Compatibility is grand, but not always enough to sustain a long-term relationship. “The single best advantage of living in is that you get to know the person inside out. You see the small idiosyncrasies that never get highlighted irrespective of how much time you spend together otherwise — from the early morning swollen face to the silly weekend pyjamas you vegetate in. As fun as it may be to ‘discover’ someone after marriage, I think it’s much better to be mentally prepared and know what one is dealing with before making a lifelong commitment,” observes Chana.

For Chana and Nanji, marriage was the goal, but she insists that she did not move in with him to test their compatibility, but with the intention of having a companion to unwind with at the end of a long, stressful day. Having lived together for over three years and now as month-old newly-weds, the transition has been seamless. “Nothing much has changed for us. While we do thoroughly enjoy each other’s company, we’ve not lost our individuality. So, when he is engrossed with his PlayStation, I’m right beside him curled up with a book. And we’re perfectly fine with that,” she explains.

While couples continue to explore fresh territories in their relationships, society is still having some difficulty adjusting to new developments. Questioning the overbearing emphasis on marriage in our country, Chana reasons, “When did legality bind anyone? I think any relationship comes with commitment or adjustment from both ends, be it a marriage, a live-in or even casual dating. People can and do walk out on all kinds of relationships all the time. Legalities are a superfluous layer when the decision is made…unless there’s a prenup or fat alimony involved. Being together versus bound by a concept that’s given a name and accepted by society, is not the same thing.”

Sense and sexuality
Roxanne Sen (name changed) is an openly gay woman from Kolkata, who has been with her girlfriend Shohini Pandey (name changed) for eight years, of which six have been spent living together. Speaking about her sexuality, she frankly states, “I don’t go out of my way to tell people I’m a lesbian, but I certainly don’t hide the fact either because that would be disrespectful to my partner.”

When Sen came out to her parents eight years ago, they were quite upset. Says the 43-year-old, “It was rather difficult for them as I am their only child. Initially, there was a fair amount of resistance; however, I quietly dug my heels in and gave them time. Over the years, they have become far more accepting of Shohini. I think seeing me happier than I’ve ever been has made them warm up to us and treat us like any other couple.”

Although her parents have made their peace with the relationship, laws continue to regress, as is evident in the repressive Section 377. Sen doesn’t dwell too much on the government’s views, explaining, “If I am comfortable in my own skin and do not feel victimised or persecuted just because I happen to be gay, then people around me will automatically feel more at ease. My bosses, friends and some of my colleagues are aware that I am queer. Barring a couple of friends, I have never been judged. At a practical level, that initial curiosity may lead to gossip, but that dies out quickly. Thankfully, with more realistic portrayals in movies, books and on television, it really isn’t that big a deal anymore. I feel that if you preserve your own dignity and self-respect, people around you are quite matter-of-fact about it.”

Sen believes that coming out is hard regardless of whether one comes from a village or a city. “I definitely feel that fear holds people back. Another thing that plays a big role is financial and economic independence. Women who are financially dependent on their families would think 100 times before coming out. On a positive note though, there is a greater sense of confidence and ease within the LGBT community today. Support groups and NGOs have also played an important role,” she muses.

Pride parades springing up in metro cities are another sign of an emboldened LGBT community. Sen has never attended one, but like many others, is proudly wearing her rainbow stripes on her sleeve.

Frozen and fertilised
Between juggling a career and a hectic social life, there is no ‘right’ time to have children. Fortunately today, sacrificing your career to start a family isn’t a prerequisite either. Many women are choosing to freeze their eggs and press pause on their biological clocks, either to keep their options open or because they are just not ready yet.

Dr Firuza Parikh, director of assisted reproduction and genetics at Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai, says, “The instinct to have a child is all-pervasive. But due to circumstances, women sometimes cannot listen to their biological clocks.” Former Miss World Diana Hayden gave birth to her first child at 42 from eggs frozen eight years prior and director/choreographer Farah Khan gave birth to triplets at 43 via in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

In a country where many are wary of meddling with the ‘birds and the bees’, the stigma attached to alternative methods of conception has reduced over time, which Dr Parikh attests to. “I think that two factors are at play. For one, society is more tolerant today and secondly, women are financially secure enough to make decisions independently. There’s less pressure from relatives and friends to have a baby too. We also see that couples are not afraid of coming forward for treatment. What was considered a social taboo and referred to in hushed tones in the past is by and large considered a medical problem today…much like any other disease,” she reveals.

Whichever way you choose to look at it, marriage and men no longer play the pivotal roles they once did as relationship statuses change from ‘married with children’ to ‘living in and loving it’. Equipped with confidence, the 21st-century Bharatiya naari is dashing outdated mindsets, defying traditional systems and finally taking life and love into her own hands.

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