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April 15, 2017

Single Life Club

Text by Neha Hiranandani. Illustration by Vartika Singh

A growing urban tribe of the unwed looks to each other for companionship in a marriage-obsessed society

“It’s embarrassing,” he says, “I’m sick of being treated like a little kid.” I look at this 38-year-old holder of two Ivy League graduate degrees. Founder of a highly successful business and over six feet tall, he is definitely not a kid.

“What are you talking about?” I ask.

“At family dinners, I can’t eat in a normal plate because I’m unmarried. I’ll get served in the kiddie plates until I tie the knot.” I look down at his kid-sized plate with food spilling over the sides — all it is missing is Mickey Mouse.

As Indians, we’re marriage-obsessed. Our social season is nuptial-dominated, the plotlines of our movies revolve around shaadis and if it doesn’t have a bridal couture line, is it even a serious fashion label? The Indian wedding industry is valued at 25 billion dollars and giving the (ring) finger to demonetisation, it is growing at 30 per cent annually. Matchmaking is a national pastime and everyone from the neighborhood aunty to that creepy panditji has an unending rishta reservoir. We seem to walk around with ‘koi mil gaya’ as our constant mental soundtrack and really, who cares if the boys are unsuitable.

No one is more obsessed with fixing single people up than us married folks. Like a cultish clan trying to convert everyone to the latest swami movement, we are often creepy in the same way. Religion emphasizes matrimony because it promotes the cause (to have children and raise them in the same faith) and so, from the bouquet throwers in Christian weddings to the kaleera-bashers in Punjabi ceremonies — wedded couples everywhere are on a mission to get everyone to the altar.

“I just want her to be happy!” exclaims my friend when I ask her why she has been pushing her cousin to get engaged for the last ten years. “Living alone is like being in jail. It’s solitary confinement. It’s torture to go solo for so long.” But is tying the knot the only way to be happy? And what if they don’t want to get fixed up?

I decide to begin my research by speaking to my unwed friends. Each has a different story but a common thread runs through them: no matter where you go or what you achieve, married people will always begin a conversation with a single person by asking, “So, how’s your love life?”

“What’s wrong with that?” I ask my friend Karishma. I have started many conversations like that. “Aren’t we just taking a polite interest in your life?”

“Well, what if I were to take a similar polite interest in theirs?” she replies. “What if I were to come charging up to them demanding, “So how’s your married life? Had any sex this year?”

I do see how that might be awkward.

“What is it about my single status that makes people so uncomfortable?” another muses, “And why assume that I need to be ‘fixed up’? I’m not broken.”

Single isn’t broken. I get that. But is it lonely and boring? I decide to get the question out of the way. “But are you lonely and bored?” I ask Gauri, one of my single friends. Diplomacy has never been my strong suit, but this a new low. She looks at me, raises a perfectly arched eyebrow and says, “I know many lonely and bored people. They are all married.” Touché.

Forget Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big, the hottest new show is Single and the City. Over the last decade, the number of unwed people has increased by 33 per cent worldwide. For the first time ever, more than 50 per cent of American adults are single, as is much of Scandinavia and Western Europe. And if you think the trend hasn’t hit Asia yet, think again; a whopping 30 per cent of Japan lives alone. Social scientists think that as countries get wealthier, people are choosing to live alone because they can finally afford it. Eric Klineberg, in his revealing book Going Solo (Penguin Press) asks a Swedish statistician why so many Swedes live alone. ‘Because we can’, he replies.

This might partially explain why the trend of choosing to stay single or opting for a divorce in a troubled marriage is catching on in urban, wealthy India. People are making these choices because they finally can. But even as the world begins to go solo, there remain two major questions that singles must battle – what about birth and death?

I call my friend Anika whose parents stayed together (despite prolonged unhappiness) for “her and her sister’s sake”. They’re not the only ones to make that decision; countless couples worldwide have decided to do the same, for their kids. Anika repeats to me what she’s been saying for years. “It messed me up in the worst possible ways,” she says, “I want to restart my childhood and ask my parents to please live apart. For me and my sister’s sake.” Anika hasn’t read the studies but her conclusion is backed by research. Yes, children do best in stable two-parent homes, but when that isn’t an option, the data shows that children are much better off living with a single mother than with parents who can’t stop fighting. So that whole thing about ‘staying together for the kids’? Well, it might not such a good idea after all.

So, that’s birth, but what about death, ask the marriage proponents? Do you really want to die alone? On this point, I defer to my (married) friend who recently pointed out that “everyone will die alone unless you choose to go sati-style and die at the same time as your partner. And even then you’ll have a few hours of alone time while you get things organised.”

Let me be clear here: I’m not trying to run down the institution. I’m married and have found it to be incredibly fulfilling. It brings me joy. But the operative word here is me; just because some derive happiness from it doesn’t mean it should be the norm. It’s time to stop the social pressure which makes people feel like failures if they haven’t followed society’s diktat. And incidentally, this can have real consequences. In a telling example, divorce rates in the US are highest in the ‘Bible Belt’ – traditional states where the pressure to enter wedlock is also at its highest. Like herds of sheep we follow one another down the aisle, but for some of us, it makes us the most unfortunate sheep of all — the sacrificial lamb. Marriage isn’t right for everyone and one size should not have to fit all.

I’m speaking to a relative in Mumbai who has chosen to remain single. We’re having a drink at one of his favourite haunts and many of his friends drop by the table to say hello. In between the chatter, he turns to me, “You know that tired hashtag?” he says, referring to #friendslikefamily. “It’s overused, but for many of us, it is a real thing. Friends can become family and sometimes it’s even better.” I try not to take offence considering he and I are family. But he’s right. This is the new urban tribe, a community of people who have become kin, providing companionship and support. And it works; countries like Sweden (60 per cent of Stockholm lives alone) have successfully invested in collective welfare, proving that single people are more connected to each other than ever.

They are more likely to take enrichment classes, visit museums and take trips. For far too long, the only trip that Indian women have taken has been the one from their father’s house to their husband’s. But no longer! There are now bespoke travel agencies that cater only to women travelling alone. And I’m not talking tired grandmas here — these are individuals who are achieving their dreams and maximizing their talents. They are economically independent; winners not losers. And they seem to be winning at everything — my longtime single friend Mallika insists that she has a more fulfilling sex life than most of her married friends. So hey, even if you don’t make it to the altar, you can still have all sorts of happy endings!

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