A still from Shikha Makan’s film Bachelor Girls
No one will bring your rights to your doorstep,” Laxmi Narayan Tripathi said at one point during the panel discussion we were on together, titled ‘Breaking Taboos’. It was an event organised by the Asia Society and chaired by Annie Zaidi, the prolific writer and editor of Unbound: 2000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing. Besides Laxmi and me, the panel included Shikha Makan, a filmmaker, and Kalyani Joshi, co-founder of The Period Project that is invested in creating menstrual hygiene awareness in rural Udaipur.
Laxmi’s words were particularly fitting considering we had begun the session with the trailer of Shikha’s bold, feminist film, Bachelor Girls, an angst-ridden exploration of the struggle faced by independent, single women who seek to rent an apartment in Mumbai, and the ensuing prejudice they have to contend with because of their non-conforming lifestyles. I recognised many women from the trailer, Kalki Koechlin, who spoke of how people don’t mind watching an actress in a film but don’t want her living in their homes. Writers Neha Sumitran, Anne Zaidi and Deepanjana Pal referred to the hypocrisy of a society where even though you may be a model citizen who pays taxes, votes, and is self-reliant, the fact that you are unmarried or divorced makes you inherently ‘bad’ or in possession of a ‘loose character’. ‘Bachelor girls’ is the stigma term used to describe single women, and is uttered as if it were the scarlet letter — a taboo word that spells failure. Most landlords who refuse to rent out space to single women are actually acting illegally, and Laxmi’s point was about how we need to be aware of our rights, that, as women, we cannot expect them to be handed to us on a platter. We must fight for them.
I found myself endlessly fascinated each time one of my co-panelists spoke. It felt so reassuring and exciting to share the platform with this bevy of amazing, intelligent, self-assured and independent women, each one a pioneer in her field. But it was also the range and extent of the comments that were made which spurred so many stimulating ideas about what it meant for women like us to perform our femininity. For instance, before Laxmi, one of the most fiery transgender activists I’ve ever met, gets on stage, she makes a point to venerate its space by touching the ground religiously. She takes her seat in this unabashed way and puts her pallu over her head, play-acting the role of someone seemingly demure, only to throw the audience off entirely once she speaks.
It was emancipating to know that there are so many of us women out there who are daring to lead lives that are unconventional — and therefore, revolutionary — lives that are marked by the struggle to make our own choices and to not slip into the free-falling ease of conformity. Especially since we’re steadily approaching Christmas and the wedding season; a time when our tribe is often made to feel most marginal, as if our successes don’t matter because we haven’t effected what is considered to be our greatest achievement: being someone’s wife. I’m usually over the moon when friends decide to get married, as long as they believe it’s a choice they’re making. But it always upsets me to witness the unbridled joy with which their lives get celebrated as if marriage were indeed their most notable accomplishment. There are moments when I, too, want to be toasted to. Ten years ago I was drolly amused by the episode in Sex and the City [A Woman’s Right to Shoes] where Carrie plans an event surrounding her “marriage to herself” in order to get Kyra to buy her a pair of Manolos to replace the ones that had gone missing in her house during a baby shower. Today, I feel amazed by the ingenuity of the idea.
Recently, a dear friend’s aunt, now 76, and I were talking about marriage. “Did you ever marry?” my friend asked his aunt, who replied in the negative. When asked why, she confessed that for many years she thought it was because she had never found the right person, but later, in her 40s, she realised it was possibly because she just wasn’t the marrying kind. At 50, she decided to adopt, and now is a proud grandmother, and remains a kick-ass woman of the world, one of the best read and most cultured I have met.
As I gather my strength, and the nerves to suffer through the incessant questions that will be asked of me again and again by people who honestly have no business asking about my marital status or lack thereof, I have begun to take great comfort in the solidarity afforded by other ‘bachelor girls’ who also live life on their own terms and have the audacity to navigate their own destinies.
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputed art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx. Send your feedback to email@example.com