Kalpana Sharma, editor of a new anthology by 13 single women from across India, says they are not "advocating or celebrating singleness, just acknowledging it"
At 72, Kalpana Sharma is as old as independent India. "I'm also an independent journalist," she shares with a smile, when we meet at her Nepeansea Road apartment, which with its Warli paintings, cane stools and godhadi quilts, is reminiscent of an Indian handicrafts boutique. The adjective, she so fiercely asserts, is but an apt description of the life that Sharma chose for herself—top on that list was her decision to remain single, when marriage to a friend had been an easier choice to make. "But, I pulled out of it. In hindsight, that decision to first contemplate marriage and then think through it [why it would not work] opened up the gateway to who I am today," she says. It's why Sharma jumped at the idea of editing a book that would include contributions by other single women like her, when approached by publisher Ritu Menon. "Increasingly, I was coming across younger women, who were saying that unless there was a huge value addition to their lives with marriage, they'd not want to go down that road. I thought that this would be interesting to explore," she says. Single By Choice: Happily Unmarried Women! (Women Unlimited) is an anthology of essays by 13 women from varied backgrounds, who arrived at their singledom from different experiences. The common sentiment of the essays are that "being single, is not a grim business". "It is a reality that is now emerging in India," says Sharma. Edited excerpts:
Women from across age groups have contributed to this book. But, who is the outlier?
One very different note has been struck by Tamil writer Bama; her story is searing. She carries the burden of not just being a woman, but also being single, Dalit, and a Christian. She is a minority among minorities. Most of us come from privileged and middle-class backgrounds. So, hers was a reality check for us, too. It was really difficult for her. The rural society is far more conservative, and women, irrespective of whether they are bread-winners, are seen as a burden. Bama describes how it was impossible to find a place to live as a single, Dalit woman in her village in Tamil Nadu. When she built her own house in the same village, she was the centre of a lot of criticism. And then she describes, how she felt alone, when she got ill. The morbid curiosity of this very traditional environment, did not make it easy. After she had a hysterectomy, the women spread a rumour that she had an abortion. Despite facing all of this, she comes through and still speaks about why she values her independence. To me, that is so moving and fantastic.
A lot of people questioned American feminist Gloria Steinem's decision to get married at 66, says Sharma. "But her argument was that because of feminism and that fight for equality within marriage, many things had changed in the US, which...eventually made her comfortable about the idea"
Do you feel that being single is frowned upon, and made to seem like a problem in India?
Well, I think it's neither an issue nor a problem. But yes, the idea is relatively new in India. In the US, it's a fact. A very interesting case is that of Gloria Steinem [American feminist], who remained single forever and even criticised marriage, but then married at 66. A lot of people questioned her decision. But her argument was that because of feminism and that fight for equality within marriage, many things had changed in the US, which is what eventually made her comfortable about the idea. The man she did marry [David Bale] was also part of a generation that had begun to think differently. Unfortunately, we are a long way from that in India.
Why do you feel so?
As many of the writers have pointed out [in the book], somehow for the men in India, only a certain kind of women are marriage material. For them, women must be the chief carers of their children and their parents, and whether this is said directly or not, that is the general attitude. I think this kind of inherent inequality is what many women are questioning. This is why you will notice a lot of professional women, putting off marriage for much longer.
Do you think that women are equally complicit in pushing stereotypes against single women?
Yes. And, the most common thing one gets to hear is that if a woman is single, there could be a problem with her. It also works the other way round—if you are good-looking and successful, people are shocked that you could be single. What has disappointed me most is that while a lot of women in my generation, questioned things that we found problematic in our traditional, Indian society and even rebelled against them, the younger generation, who are not married, have become very unquestioning of the fact that marriage is inevitable and some are also over-spending on lavish weddings. This is why I was happy that journalist Sharanya Gopinathan, who is all of 26, raised these questions in her essay.
How different is it for single men in our society?
As far as single men go, I think they have it far easier than us, though there is always, all kinds of speculation—like curiosity about your orientation. But, in a patriarchal society, why should single men have any problem?
'Most people wonder who will look after us, when you get old. But when you are single, you create a network of friends; they become your alternate family'
What do you hope this book to do for women in general?
Our main aim was to simply point out the fact that there are an increasing number of single women in the country. But, I also hope to provoke a conversation on the institution of marriage and inequality of women therein. We are not celebrating or advocating singleness, we are just acknowledging it. And through these personal stories, we want to show that being single is liberating and empowering, and not making us anxious or depressed. Most people wonder who will look after us, when you get old. But when you are single, you work to create a network of friends and community; they become your alternate family. We hope that a book like this, really looks at creating a space for people who decide to be different and not follow the norm.
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