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Solo face of courage

Updated on: 09 June,2024 07:07 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Sumedha Raikar Mhatre |

What does it mean to be single, female and Indian? A new Hindi anthology challenges the urban, upper class idea of independence

Solo face of courage

Divya Jain, 74, is an award-winning writer and editor of the erstwhile Hindi magazine Antarang Sangini, and is behind the anthology titled, Khudi Ko Kar Buland: Ekal Streeyon ka Zindaginama (RK Publication). Pic/Satej Shinde

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre India is said to be home to approximately 100 million single women; a significant demographic with influence on multiple aspects of society. The singlehood of women has a connection with contemporary family structures, inheritance laws, social security, moral codes, law and order, gender bias, income patterns, and career prospects.  

Single women are being increasingly acknowledged as a social-economic force not just by ‘Ekal’ women’s organisations nationwide, but also by public policy experts. And yet, social scientists point to the scheme benefits that are beyond the grasp of households held together by single women. 

In 2018, 100-odd women from Marathwada and Vidarbha, gathered under the umbrella of Pune-based Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (MAKAAM), and descended on Mumbai’s protest ground Azad Maidan to share their lived realities with the establishment--as single women, and as farmers. In February this year, New Delhi witnessed a three-day consultation on single women, spotlighting the need to redefine the idea of a single woman. Here, scholars urged to extend the term ‘single’ across identities--devadasis, sex workers, transwomen with disability, women in religious orders, women in hospices, refugee women, half-widows in conflict-ridden locations, and widows of suicide-struck farmers.  

The anthology features stories by lawyer Flavia Agnes and Handcrafted textiles entrepreneur Dr Manjula JagatramkaThe anthology features stories by lawyer Flavia Agnes and Handcrafted textiles entrepreneur Dr Manjula Jagatramka

This made it more than apparent that the diversity of single women in this country is untapped; it is captured only in research journals that bother to look beyond the stereotypical notion of the unattached, divorced, separated or never-married urban woman.  Uma Jain’s “Demystifying and Dignifying Singlehood: Life Journeys of Single Women Across the Globe” and Kalpana Sharma’s “Single by Choice: Happily Unmarried Women!” offer varied voices of women who defy societal norms; so does “Being Single in India: Stories of Gender, Exclusion, and Possibility” by  Sarah Lamb.  Women rights activist Nisha Shiurkar’s Ladha Taklekya Streeyancha: Parityakta Andolanacha Vedh is a valuable documentation of the movement to mobilize support for deserted women, which stems from Babasaheb Ambedkar’s efforts dating back to 1927. 

This writer was delighted to come across a new anthology of stories in Hindi, which adds newer single women’ voices to the social discourse. Mumbaikar Divya Jain, 74, who is an award-winning writer and editor of the erstwhile Hindi magazine Antarang Sangini, is behind the anthology titled, Khudi Ko Kar Buland: Ekal Streeyon ka Zindaginama (RK Publication). For her, this book was part of her coping mechanism; Jain has survived the recent loss of a mentally challenged sibling. The rigours of editing and publishing, she says, granted her a sense of purpose. The book’s title takes after poet Muhammad Allama Iqbal’s quote on self-elevation as a means to self-empowerment. 

The 13 single women that this anthology profiles, hail from distinct cultural backgrounds, cities, echleons and castes. Senior feminist researcher Dr Vibhuti Patel says that the book has unique socio-political value, more than literary merit. “We live in a country where singlehood is associated with shame, embarrassment, and failure. It has to be kept under wraps. So, this book is a feat since [it has managed to get] women have candidly shared their personal choices. Their specific circumstances reflect the political reality.” 

Each story presents a different tryst with singlehood. “SEWA didi” Annapurna Prajapati transports us to the women’s self-help groups of Gujarat. Theatreperson Meenakshi Thakur’s singlehood stems from an unresolved marital conflict and the uncertainties of the entertainment world. Twenty-nine-year-old Lata from Ulhasnagar introduces the reader to the universe of domestic workers. She is the sole breadwinner in an impoverished, broken family with a hypoglycemic minor daughter. She takes recourse to egg donation as a means of financial survival. The 50-year-old Susheela, a Jatav caste member raised by penurious parents in Agra, is a fierce struggler living with her mentally-challenged adult son. Humming folk sings is her escape from the memories of abuse at the hands of a drunk husband. Both, Lata and Susheela belong to Below Poverty Line households where singledom comes with added social risks. 

Singlehood in the so-called upper class wears a different hue, as is evident in the four narratives of women from seemingly privileged backgrounds; some of these are unknown faces. Seema, living a single life for 20 years in Mumbai, deals with stress even after exiting a violent marriage. She completes her graduation in Indore and enters the city of dreams with her husband who abuses her from the word go. When time and children don’t improve matters, she files for divorce. However, the story takes an unexpected turn when she is in London with her son. As her ex-husband falls ill, the son insists that she go to India and care for him. Seema is aghast by the societal expectations that slot women as eternal caregivers.  Handcrafted textiles entrepreneur Dr Manjula Jagatramka’s choice of singlehood is an eyeopener. A Mumbai resident for 40 years, she hails from a traditional Kolkata-based Marwari family which openly discriminated against daughters in favour of the male heir. 

Professionally speaking, Jagatramka excelled as the founder of VAITARNA (Value-added Indian Textile And Related Natural Artefacts) and travelled all over India as a trainer in the entrepreneurship and marketing of hand-made textiles and crafts. Unfortunately, she was not accepted by her family, or allowed to meet her dying father. That was the price she paid for choosing a single, happy existence in Mumbai.

Women’s studies scholar Chanda Asani, currently based in Tiruchirappalli, presents a new dimension to singlehood. Her single life has always been about learning new things. At the age of 67, she has enrolled for a doctorate on the subject, The Role of Panchayat in Localising Gender Equality at the Department of Women’s Studies, Bharathidasan University. Prior to this, Asani was a popular lecturer of women’s studies at Jaipur’s IIS University for 10 years. Her 2015 e-book on women’s national identity beyond borders received much attention. Going by her accomplishments, no one can imagine how smoothly she sailed turbulent sea in her formative years after separating from her husband. Chanda Asani, born as Olibul Dasgupta in a Bengali household in Jabalpur, witnessed her mother’s suffering at an impressionable age. She rebelled against her father’s patriarchal notions successfully. She married at 15 and survived the cultural change with support from her husband’s Sindhi family. She walked out of the marriage with her two sons at 23. Asani couldn’t return to her maiden home as she had young, unmarried sisters. She started life anew and opted for her in-laws’ home as a refuge with an invitation from her father-in-law. Eventually, she rebuilt her life in Mumbai with her children. She did odd jobs to make ends meet. Later, a confident Asani worked devotedly at the SNDT Women’s University Rural Development Centre. She is the recipient of the Neerja Bhanot Award for 2008. 

Singlehood was never a single journey for Asani. She built her community along with two families--the one she was born into and her husband’s family. This gave her the fuel for the journey she opted for. Had she continued in an unhappy union, she wouldn’t have become the scholar she is today; just as Flavia Agnes wouldn’t have become the lawyer-activist-feminist she is, had she not challenged the Christian Marriage Act and asked for divorce on the grounds of cruelty. By seeking a new path, self-made, Agnes not just brought happiness to herself and her children, but inspired other women to not conform out of fear.

Khudi Ko Kar Buland... essentially underscores the healing power of singlehood. For the women featured in the anthology, singlehood has generated freedom and self-reliance, which made them chart their own roadmap. Singlehood did not solve all their problems; it led to acute loneliness at times. But it afforded them a wider untapped community to deal with the unseen future. Singlehood also gave them time for themselves. 

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text.  You can reach her at

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