Peter McGraw talks to Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, author and advocate, and Dr. Ketaki Chowkhani, a social scientist, about the plight and resilience of single women in India. Good listeners, make sure you check out Sree’s book: Single Status: The Truth about Single Women in India. Sign up for the Solo community at: https://petermcgraw.org/solo/
Listen to Episode #178 here
The Truth About Single Women In India
I have a very special episode here. I have two guests. It’s 8:00 AM in Denver. It’s 7:30 PM in India. I don’t know how that works. We are here to talk about being a single woman in India. Welcome, Ketaki.
Thank you, Peter.
Thank you so much.
I’m doing a little fun thing. My guests are friends and colleagues. Is that a fair assessment?
We are comrades.
I like that word. I use that word too. They are friends. They are comrades. They have a shared interest, but different perspectives, different training, and different orientations. For fun, I’m going to ask them to introduce each other, since they know each other better than I know them. Who wants to start?
It’s my pleasure to introduce Sreemoyee Piu Kundu. She’s a very well-known writer based in India. She’s been a journalist. Primarily, she’s written a book in 2017 called Status Single. It’s a story of 3,000 women, and it’s a bestseller. That’s something that I might recommend everyone to read. She’s also very prominently a community leader. She started a group called Status Single. It’s a group of urban single women. She has a page on Facebook, but I believe Sreemoyee will tell you later. They have started meeting in person. If you want to know more about urban single women, you must contact her.
I came to Sree via her book, Status Single. I can’t remember how I found it, but I ordered it immediately. I will add one little thing that I found in my research about Sree. She has been dubbed the Queen of Indian Erotica.
I know. It’s a crown of thorns. It’s a book that I wrote in 2014 called Sita’s Curse, which is India’s first feminist erotica. Before that, let me not sound too pompous and introduce my dear Ketaki, Dr. Ketaki Chowkhani. She teaches the paper, the subject, Single Studies at the University of Manipal. She has been associated with the Department of Sociology for the past few years. Ketaki is like me, unmarried, child-free, and lives by herself.
I also want to add, Ketaki, this is something I’m putting in and I hope you are okay, in a country like India where we have 75 million single women, which is over 7 crows. This is a figure that I quote from a census that was done several years ago. If we do the census in 2024, then we will have beaten the USA and China in terms of single women.
It’s very important that singlehood is taught in academic institutions as part of economics, sociology, behavioral psychology, and even urban planning because we are looking at assisted community living. I salute Ketaki for being one of the pioneers in the field of academics to teach Single Studies as an area of academic curiosity, research, and postdoctoral studies. This is very important because until the time we don’t do this, singlehood will not be considered a serious movement. It will just be like a pin in the haystack.
Thank you, Sree. I agree with you. I suspect it’s probably similar in India, but in the United States, it’s very easy to find programs in family studies. It’s even easy to find classes in the family and finding programs, classes, and even scholars who study single living is rather rare. Ketaki is part of an elite small group of singlehood researchers. I get their emails and I hear about them in India, Europe, and the United States mostly. It’s happening very slowly. My argument in line with you, Sree, is not everybody gets married and not everybody has children, but every single person on the planet is, was, or will be single again. To ignore this phenomenon is to ignore the very basic elements of the human condition.
You mentioned 75 million single women in India as of the last census. Let’s dive a little bit more into the demographics and the shifts in single living in India. This is a very relationship escalator-focused country. A country that still has arranged marriages. It also has love marriages. It’s undergoing a cultural shift at the same time that it’s undergoing a demographic shift. My understanding of it is that there are very interesting dynamics that are happening with single living, and then also the gendered element of that. Who wants to speak to that?
I was at CNBC Television. I was there delivering a keynote lecture. I quoted these figures that 39% of India’s female population is now single. 21% of about 12 million women are single mothers. 20% to 21% of households are run by solo primary breadwinners. A single mother or a primary breadwinner could be an unmarried daughter or a widowed daughter.
What was amazing was that after I had delivered my keynote, I had the heads of organizations like The Big Boys Club in their suits and their ties, coming up to me and saying, “We can’t believe there are so many single women.” I looked at them and I was telling some of them, “I can’t believe you are saying this to me, because in corporate India, about 30% to 50% of the workforce are single women.
Here’s the thing. You mentioned a very interesting and very important observation, that India is on the cusp of not just a cultural revolution, but a sociological, demographic, economic, and sexual revolution also. The singlehood or the solo movement is integrated into these changes that our society is passing through. This is a country where marriage and motherhood are considered the holy grail of womanhood. This is a country where as soon as a daughter is born, we still have very high rates of female foeticide. When the daughter is born, if she is allowed to see the light of day, may I say that with a lot of shame about my country? Immediately, she is labeled as Paraya Dhan, which means another’s property.
The life of a woman lacks agency from the moment she’s born. She’s born into her father’s home, then she transitions to her husband’s home. During a Hindu marriage, we have a custom where the bride takes a mound full of rice in her palms. When she’s leaving the father’s home, as you know, the bride leaves the parental home to move into her in-law’s home. She throws that mound full of rice behind her shoulders as she repays Pitru Rin. That means repaying the father’s parental debt. It’s patriarchy because the father also does the Kanyadaan. This is not something that is only limited to Hinduism. Even in Christianity, it is the father who walks the bride down the aisle.
From the husband’s house, she transitions to her child’s house. If you see Hindu widows in the past, their heads would be shaved off. They would be made to wear a single yarn or sari, which has no pleats, nothing. It’s just wrapped around. They would be relegated to eating non-vegetarian and sleeping on the cold barren floor. Most of them went off to either Haridwar, Varanasi, Rishikesh, or Kalighat in Kolkata, which is my hometown, which are pilgrimages. They serve the Lord.
A sexualized and completely robbed of their womanhood. Now, if you were child-free, if you didn’t have children, then you transition from the husband’s home to the feet of the Lord. This is one step up because remember, this is a country where we had Sati and Jauhar. When the men died, the women would burn themselves, and self-emulate on the fire of the husband, which was banned by the colonial rulers. This is the context of our nation against which now, this giant tsunami of single women is landing.
Like my book, and Ketaki will add a much more in-depth perspective, single doesn’t mean women like us who are child-free or unmarried. It could also mean unmarried, but with a child, either adopted or they have bought sperm from the sperm bank and they have had a biological child through IVF. It includes widows, again, with a child or without a child. That is the binary. Then divorced. Then women undergo separation. Then physically disabled women. Then LGBTQI transwomen, again with a child or without a child. The intersectionality of this community and the diversity is its strength, but where we are lacking is inclusion. Unless there is inclusion, there can never be equity. It’s DEI. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We have diversity. We are looking for inclusion. Without it, there will be no equity.
Listening to you speak about this is reminiscent of what has gone on in the United States in the last many years. The stories that you are telling, some of them seem very similar to 1800s America up to the nuclear family, where this is the default. A woman moves from the family house into her husband’s house, lacking power, lacking freedom, and lacking individuality.
What’s interesting now is that India can look to the outside world and see that there’s more than one way that this conformity does exist. I have to imagine, to mix my metaphors, fueling this tsunami in a sense where you can look and see women around the world living on their own, having more equality, and celebrating that diversity of different lifestyles.
I want to pick up on one point that Peter made and one point that Sreemoyee made. To start with Peter, talk about the relationship escalator and this is for all races but specific to the Indian context is when we are talking about single. I’m glad Sreemoyee has charted out to us the whole spectrum of single women that might exist in context. We need to be very clear, especially since a lot of your audience might be American. When you say single, we mean unmarried. In context, either you are single as in you are unmarried or you are married.
That coupling and the relationship escalator that Amy Gahran has spoken about. She’s written about, how you are single, you might be dating, you are cohabiting, and then you get married. That little bit is there in urban India. People are dating. It’s not that. That is not there, but largely it is not socially acceptable. We are seeing that with intercourse, interreligious, dating, and marriages there’s a lot of violence surrounding it. What I’m trying to say is, in Indian context, either you are socially acceptable, what is socially acceptable? Either you are not married or you are married, you can’t be facing.
It’s very interesting that that phase, while it’s empirically there, it’s not socially acceptable. Even empirically it’s present, it’s very controlled that the whole idea of dating is seen as a progressive thing. Whereas, within the singlehood movement, we are questioning that dating thing. We are questioning the idea of coupledom. That’s what we question in single studies, coupledom. In the Indian context, we are not questioning coupledom. We are primarily questioning marriage.
That’s what I find interesting, specifically in the Indian context. I keep teaching that to my students. I often tell them that this is not something when we read Bella DePaulo in our class, or we read Amy Gahran. We read Craig Wynne, who you interviewed in The Happy Bachelor. All of this, they are talking about the pressures of coupling. We are talking about the pressures of marriage. That is one point I wanted to make, which is specific to the Indian context. I’m sure that’s specific to the South Asian context. Not just India, but South Asia, maybe Southeast Asia, but the South Asian context.
The second point I like that Sreemoyee made is when you are saying that these corporate heads came to you and didn’t suddenly realize that you are a single woman. I’m like, “How is it you didn’t realize that?” If you look at the statistics, this is something I’m drawing from Shrayana Bhattacharya’s book, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, which is looking at which kinds of women are in the labor force.
You have seen that there’s a very small percentage of married women in the labor force. A higher percentage of single women, never married, and another higher percentage of divorced women. The women who are in the workforce are women who are never married and women who are divorced, which is single women. Married women are automatically falling off the thing. Economically, I’m surprised that is not a demographic that we are looking at.
Sree, you had mentioned The Big Boys Club. One of the problems with The Big Boys Club is they are married. They are very traditional people. Everybody they know is married and their children are getting married. They are in this world and they don’t even recognize it. They don’t see these singles. They don’t see these people who are living unapologetically unattached. These folks who are dating and these folks who are not interested in coupling because it’s not part of their world. Unless someone pounds on their desk like Sree, “Pay attention, there’s an opportunity here,” they are going to miss it.
I was reading something on Instagram. You had written a post, Peter. I was reading that before we came on. You had written that the Solo Community, your collective that you are building through this show, you are pro single. You are pro-solo, but you are not anti-marriage. It’s the same thing with me and my community Status Single.
To amplify what Ketaki is saying, which is so important, the second point. Firstly, we talked about why is it such a surprise for the people who had organizations to even acknowledge that their workforce is predominantly single. Whether it’s divorced or widows, after COVID, there have been many widows. A lot of organizations have given jobs to the widowed survivors of the employees. There are single mothers. There are women like us, so why are they not acknowledging?
There are 2 to 3 reasons. It’s that monolithic preservation of marriage and monogamy because it keeps society safe. Any other permutation and combination is attacking many things. Religion, sexuality, finance, and ways in which people want to have children or choose not to have children. The second thing is, this I have realized because I run a community in which we have a Facebook group that is close to 4,000 women, plus we are operational as chapters in 8 Indian cities. We function through WhatsApp groups. We have support groups, which are Women’s Collectives. There’s a leadership which I have formed in these cities. Wonderful, empathetic, strong, and beautiful women leaders. They are volunteer groups. We meet once a month or once every two months.
Now, one of the biggest problems is invisibilization. I’m sorry. I’m inventing a word for the single woman in the workplace. Women after a divorce don’t feel comfortable sharing that they have got divorced at their workplace. They hide it from their employers. They don’t want to change the health policy to just them or their aging mother, a friend, or a sister because there is no option. If you are a married woman, then the person that you nominate in your company health papers is the next of kin is your husband. The next of kin is your child.
If you are a divorced woman who doesn’t have a child, then she has to change all the paperwork. In India, we change our surnames. The first thing is she has to change her surname back to her maiden name. Like Ketaki Chowkhani will have to become Ketaki Chowkhani again. It’s like an identity theft. Marriage is an identity user patient and theft. What happens is these women who are working, you cannot believe educated and qualified women are petrified of revealing their divorce status at work.
Three reasons, quickly I will say. 1) It’s because they will become the object of male lust because immediately, they will be available. Divorcing means she’s used to men, she’s used to marriage, and she’s used to sex, so she needs sex and she needs a fix. 2) She could not run a family? Her marriage broke down. It must be her fault. How can we interest her with her team? How can we give her more work? She will want to run home and take care of her children if she’s a single mom. She will be either too much of a fighter cock, she will be too aggressive, she will be too demanding, or she wants a lot. She has a lot of expectations. That’s why the man dumped her, left, and had an affair.
3) The complication and the lack of support. I have women who are victims or rather survivors of domestic violence. They quit jobs because how can you go to the office and explain a black eye? How many times can you say you fell in the bathroom? There is no acknowledgment. Marital rape, which is still not decriminalized in our country, again, I’m ashamed of this. Domestic violence, in India is one of the highest, including the US. It happens even in a first-world country.
When you say women, they don’t have a safe space in the office, because most of the time, the women HR professionals are the ones to judge them. They are the ones to character assassinate. Before we point a finger at the big boys, let’s also pull up the harbingers of this misogyny. They are the gatekeepers of these big boys. The mouthpieces and the HRs.
The Eichmanns is the term. The regular everyday people who are enacting the policy.
In 2019, after I had written the book I wanted, I reached out to corporates for sponsorship to do Asia’s first single women’s summit, which I had called SWIFT, Single Women Of India Forward Together. The two things that I got, and there comes Ketaki’s first point was, “We cannot put our money on any conclave or event, which is about single women.” The question to them is, “Excuse me, but why?” “It’s because you are becoming anti-marriage. Marriage is a religious, familial, and societal bedrock. The second thing is you are anti-men. We can’t have feminists in the organization because the big boys don’t like feminists. The big girls don’t want to say they are feminists.”
Feminist is single. Feminist is asexual. A feminist is an activist. A feminist is somebody who’s going to hold a placard and shut down your factory. That’s the feminist. The witches were being burnt at the stake. This is the reason why, even at a prestigious conference, as you are saying, it’s almost stupid, the reaction that how can they not know that there are so many single people in the workforce.
I have so many responses. The one thing about it is that I have wondered openly on this show if I was too early to see the reversal and to see the change. Listening to you, I have to feel that at times, you feel the same way. I know it’s going to happen. This is where the world is headed. Some places have a head start. In some places, it’s happening faster than others. India has such strong pillars that this revolution is going to be slower, fraught, challenging, and painful as you are describing.
I have to ask, there’s another demographic issue in India on the male side because you had mentioned infanticide. You also have all of these single men who want wives and have trouble finding them because there are not “enough” women because of the missing women of India. That creates further tension, I have to assume. Can you talk about that?
Especially in Punjab and Haryana, what happens is one of the places where you have the most skewed sex ratio in Punjab and Haryana is where they are unable to find a bride within there. Their system is so deep, which is there across the country, but they are very specific about whom you can marry. You can only marry somebody from a particular cut. You cannot marry outside that.
It’s also not there. In a very strange move over the last decades, they are saying, “We need these men who need brides. What do we do then?” From Haryana, which is in Northwest India, we get brides from East India, Odisha, and Assam. From way off who don’t speak the language, who are culturally very different. That is one of the things that is happening.
I’m speaking about a very rural context. We are not talking about a very urban city metropolitan context. That’s because of this skewed sex ratio. On the other hand, when we are talking about single men, this is something that the research and I have also done. Especially when I have looked at difficulties in housing. We know very well that women do find it hard to find housing in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, everywhere. It is very hard if you are a single woman to get a house of your own. It’s almost like a burnout thing to say. It’s so well-established.
I did that research, and I found that’s not true of women. That’s true of men as well. I interviewed the single men in Mumbai, and I’m like, “They also have a problem.” I realize that there’s a particular gay, which is there. There’s that gay from single women very clearly pointed out the witch. I think that described that well. For single men, it’s like, “That man is not decent. He must be perverted. He must be a bachelor that will bring a lot of women home. He will party a lot. He’s not to be trusted.”
Women have a particular stereotype attached to them. These men have this also. Both have stereotypes. They are very different stereotypes. There are all these ideas. I’m like, “If men find it hard, you can’t even imagine how hard it might be for women. How can we not recognize that there’s that spectrum that we are speaking about?” That’s true everywhere. That’s something I feel that no one wants to talk about. That’s something that I have been wanting to write about single men in India. Publishers are not very interested in it. They are no takers. They are like, “We want to hear about single women.” Yes, we want to hear, but what’s happening to single men? The whole idea is that women say single men get married, but that’s not how it works.
A lot of women stay single because of patriarchy. Who else needs to be non-patriarchy? The man, you have to talk about them. As somebody who started masking that, that is important. They just don’t want to talk about how marriage is benefiting men, but also if they are not entering into something that benefits them, that is challenging. They are also challenging. We are talking about it in a very different way. Women are, but if you can imagine a man challenging, you can barely imagine the length to which women are challenging.
That’s the question that I found very hard to speak about in the Indian context. Finding these men and getting them. It’s a pure advantage for a man in India to get married. Especially in cases where women are not, then once married woman is not working. The man gets immediately a woman who’s going to look after his household, cook for him, clean, look after his children, and provide for him. It’s a win-win situation for a man. Whereas for a woman, it’s a lose-lose situation. That’s one of the reasons, if look at Kalpana Sharma’s book, Single By Choice, there is one thread that runs through why women have chosen to be single saying, “It is not in our favor to get married. At the basis, apart from single-ism, at the basis of patriarchy.
In one of our WhatsApp groups, we were having a very interesting conversation about dating apps. There’s a lady, a young widow. There were a couple of other singletons, some divorced, some unmarried like us discussing dating apps. One of them asked which is a good dating app. Is it Bumble, Aisle, Hinge, or OkCupid? We are not talking about them. The immediate advice that was rolled out is that be very careful because most of these dating apps are infiltrated with married men.
Married men have filled up these apps. There, I interjected and I said, “Hang on. It’s also married women. Let’s not put all the married men as being on apps lurking around for either sex or emotional intimacy, and the women being holier than thou.” I know of a very close male friend who began a relationship with a woman who completely kept her husband and child under wraps. Until the time when he got a bit serious about her and started noticing the red flags.
She wouldn’t take calls at home. She was not okay with the video calls. Unavailable after 7:00 PM. “My ex is at home,” and all that crap. Then the girls started saying, “What we have noticed is that in India,” and these are women talking, so they are talking about men. The moment a man has a problem in his marriage, which means he’s not getting sex and he’s emotionally unfulfilled or there’s no intimacy. Firstly, in India, we have to acknowledge the fact that there is no concept of intimacy. We have grown up seeing asexual parents and grandparents. We have grown up seeing parents who never kiss on the lips or touch or go on holidays alone without the child or the in-laws. It’s a very family culture.
Is this largely because these are arranged marriages, so these are marriages of practicality, or is it beyond that?
No. My grandparents had a love marriage, but in India, love is not expressed physically. Physical expressions of love are frowned upon. PDA is looked upon as obscene. We are living in denial that people are not having premarital sex, whereas the number of teenage abortions is ginormous in India. We are almost at par with the US in terms of usage of birth control pills which you just pop in after having sex, which is very unsafe for young girls because it wrecks the hormonal balance. That’s what they were saying that the moment there is boredom in the marriage. Now India has woken up to this thing of dating. We don’t understand what is dating.
Most of the men who are on these dating apps have just come here because they want to have sex. They are looking for partners to have sex with or they want to talk to somebody. Are they looking for a lifelong commitment? Are they looking for companionship? A very small number. The rest are playing the field because they know that ultimately, I may have to marry somebody who my parents approve of, if not select.
The point is that this has become a pandemic now, married people on dating apps. I call it the pandemic where it’s an upsurge. Again, coming back to the very important point that Ketaki made, the critical point, that any singlehood movement, why are corporates threatened when I want to do a television show? Why are channels getting like, “No, single women, it’s too revolutionary?” Why are they saying this despite the numbers? It’s because it is taking on the institution of marriage.
In India or anywhere for what is marriage, when you force-feed monogamy and when you make it essential that marriage is healthy only when there are children. What you are doing is you are controlling. Let’s face it. When you talk about monogamy, all over the world, the men have always had mistresses. They have had harems, courtesans, and concubines, but it’s the women who have, in India at least or anywhere in the world actually, even worn vestiges of marriage.
The sindoor on the forehead, the red and white bangles which are worn in my home state of West Bengal, the shakha pola. The chooras, which is what Punjabi women wear for a year after their marriage. When the husband dies, for instance, you see the vermilion being wiped off the woman’s forehead. You see the mangalsutra being removed from her neck. You see the widows break their glass bangles and howl and cry. What I’m trying to say is that any movement or any way of living, which is alternate, and any discard of a socioeconomic, religious, and why I am constantly using the word sexual, because marriage also keeps your sexuality. Your sexual urges are in check. That’s what monogamy tells us. One partner you need for life.
Here, as you know, we take seven rounds around a ceremonial fire. We bequeath our life to our husbands or for seven births we must belong to them, which is complete bull crap. At the end of the day, in India, this is a very important figure, Ketaki, please feel free to add to this. The divorce rates are one of the lowest in the world. If I see my community, the biggest section of the pie of urban single women is not women like Ketaki and me via the anomaly. Even now, when I tell people that I am single, they keep asking me, “You never got married? You are not a divorcee.” No.
I don’t believe in the institution of marriage. I believe in love. I believe in commitment. I’m a dinosaur with very old-world values, but I find the institution of marriage completely patriarchal. The emotional labor of women is not accounted for. I feel that this pressure on women to have kids and to prove that the man is virile and the family lineage is being taken forward. To me, it’s very sexist. This is what I’m saying. We are taking on centuries-old institutions, the world over. We are ahead of our times.
I congratulate you on it because one of the things that matters is these women need role models. They need to see people doing this, doing it well, and doing it unapologetically. Then they can say, “If you can do it, maybe I can,” and then people can live their best life.
I want to say two things, especially about role models and something that sticks to the Indian context. Both are directly related to my research. The first point is that, once I started researching singlehood, and that’s something that we will also mention, “Do we have those role models?” I’m like, “Did I have those role models around me growing up when I was growing up as a young woman in India?” I realized I did have role models. It’s just that I wasn’t looking in the right direction, or maybe I didn’t pay attention. This is what I find interesting. This will segue then into the second point that I want to make.
I grew up in Puducherry which is a small town in South India. It was a French colony. I grew up in a community, it was a spiritual community called the Sri Aurobindo Ashram where marriage wasn’t something valued. It wasn’t valued amongst the larger communities. There were around 2,000 to 3,000 members within that community who were not married. The whole goal was not activism per se, but the whole goal was to lead a spiritual life and to lead a community life. What was important was the community and their spiritual growth and aspirations, rather than the family and marriage.
I realized that that is an interesting space, which we don’t often speak about in the Indian context. I grew up around these people who were themselves never married. They were people from the ages of 30, 40, to 90 who had never married in their lives. They are living within an intentional community. They are community was looking after them. I do have those role models. My teachers were like that. They all lived together. I’m like, “Why did I not think of this person?” I have written about this in a book where I’m talking about my experience of being a single woman.
I think we have to look. Whenever I speak to my students about role models, I often ask them, “Do you have an aunt or a single uncle? How does the family view them?” They might not be a role model, but you do have a resident. This is something also I have noticed in, if you look Kalpana Sharma’s book, Single By Choice: Happily Unmarried Women! I keep bringing that book up because that ties in very nicely with Sree’s book and what you are saying about never-married women.
Many of them don’t speak about their parents who inspired them. All these women, apart from saying that patriarchy is the reason they didn’t get married, are saying “We had parents.” They had parents who supported their decision not to get married. We have to, in some sense, look at the role of the larger community and the family. Either in terms of role models or in terms of reliable precedent that maybe that aunt or that uncle who was single led a good life. Maybe you didn’t think about it. Maybe when I asked you in the classroom, you didn’t think about it and realize that they did well for themselves. Maybe your parents colored you and your other family members told you that they do well.
That sense is also about looking for those role models. We do have a lot of women who are prominent women in the Indian context who are maybe widowed or divorced. The role model of a never-married person, especially of a never-married woman, is very strong. In that book and our lives, we do see prominent figures like Obama. This is something of discussion I have been having with Emma John, that we do have critiques like Lisa Marajh. I think it’s just about digging the surface and finding figures and celebrities who are not married women and men who we might want to look up to. That is the first point.
Since I’m talking about a spiritual community, I want to segue to my second point. Along with a colleague of mine, Sonia Sharma, we have been thinking that there are ways in which one can be single in India. What are those ways? One of the spaces that allows that legitimate primarily to men, but to a certain extent to women, is religion within Hinduism, but also within Christianity. I’m not sure about other religions.
I think that’s the research that needs to be done where you said your marriage to God, or if you have devoted your whole life to religion to God. There is a certain thought that’s attached to you where you can then say, “I keep that household stage and I can be legitimately single. I will be worshiped.” If you are in politics and it’s something that we are writing about, unlike the US, politicians in India are more revealed when they are not married.
I don’t want to mention, that our prime minister left his wife, but there are a number of women politicians. We have very powerful politicians like Jayalalithaa. You have Mayawati. We have a lot of male politicians that are across political and party lines. It’s not just Hindu right-wing but across the line, who has said all for that matter in the Congress. Across lines, you have Bengal, you have Congress, you have BJP, and Jayalalithaa who has said that.
Ketaki, I find that analogy. I am from a state where our chief minister is like us, unmarried and child-free. Her nephew is quite a prominent figure in the party. It’s a brother’s son if I’m not mistaken. As she is a single woman, the character assassination. People say that the nephew is her son. She was married to a Muslim guy. When a woman is single, that famous quote in India, “Akeli ladki khuli tijori hoti.” A woman who is unaccompanied by a man is like an open treasure trove. She’s just there for everybody to come and exploit, use, harass, or whatever. I find that analogy to be very problematic. I will tell you two things.
As you mentioned your familial role models. I grew up in a very typical middle-class Bengali household where I saw everybody being married. For me, it took me some time to realize that my mother was aberration because my mother became a widow when she was 30. I lost my biological father to schizophrenia and suicide. We lived under the shadow of his untimely death, like most survivor families do, with shame, silence, and suspicion. I saw my mother being singled out, if I may use a pun on the show. She was shunned.
All wedding ceremonies and the holiday ceremony. I wrote about this where my mother would be made to be a part of the trousseau shopping. She would accompany her sisters to buy jewelry, but on the day of the wedding, most of the rituals involved only married women. My mother would be asked to step aside. When my mother used to step aside, immediately, all my cousins whose mothers were all married aunts of mine, would look at me like an untouchable, because they were like, “What’s wrong? She doesn’t have a father. What happened to the father?” I didn’t know that my father had died by suicide until I was sixteen.
I grew up with this crippling sense of social anxiety and also shame, which still exists in children of single mothers, even now, where they are bullied in schools where they are bullied at birthday parties, and where they are shamed for not having vachanam like the famous Amitabh Bachchan where he was told to tattoo the father’s name on his hand.
My mother, though she didn’t have a husband, she was a primary caregiver to her aged parents. My grandfather was a heart patient. My grandmother developed esophageal cancer. My mother was the primary breadwinner. She was a teacher like you. She was an educator all her life. She would go to school, she would teach, she would come back home, she would give me lunch, and then she would take care of her parents’ medicines, the nursing, what was happening, which doctor’s appointment, and immediately again, go and give tuitions to make ends meet.
I also realize that for a lot of women who come back home to their parental homes. I was discussing this with a sister of mine who’s very successful. She’s a corporate honcho. She heads the Confederation of Indian Industries. It’s a huge organization in India. She’s unmarried. She was telling me how her mother used to be very insecure about her marriage after she was about 35 to 40 because she was the caregiver to the widowed mother.
Similarly, my grandparents, whom I love to death, brought me up, but they never made any attempt to get my mother remarried. It was my mother when she was my age, I was 45, my mother was about 43 or 44. When my mom fell in love on her own volition with a man who was a decade younger than her, she went against society and they decided to be together. Again, coming back to what Peter was saying, there was no way for them to be together until and unless they got married.
It is why my stepdad is more than a father to me. He’s a great guy. He told my mother, “I want to be with you. I love you. I want to be a father to my child, but society is going to treat us like pariahs because here we are with the age difference. Our language, our community, and our home states are different. You have aging parents, I have aging parents who are opposed to this match. What is the way we can be together? Marriage.”
That is another problem I think is why marriage as an institution is so redundant. It should not be the only way in which people who love each other can be together. I have a problem with that fundamental theory. One more thing is this thing because you brought up politicians. I am often told because I stay with my parents and my foster sister who’s young, “Sree, you have such a charmed life. You are like Papa Ki Ladli. You are the only daughter. You have a house and parents.”
I take on the responsibility. It’s like being married because I live with aging parents. I have a young sister who’s like my daughter. In what way is my sense of responsibility, duty involvement, and even emotional labor and physical labor? This is what politicians say, if you see even the way women politicians dress, the moment they wear western clothes, then they become unworthy. This whole Sanskari image that Mamata Banerjee or Jayalalithaa is saying, “As I never got married, I am here to serve you.” What does that mean? That marriage is servitude. What are you saying? Inversely, if you twist that theory around, what are you saying? Some great philosophers said, “Marriage is organized prostitution. Marriage is nothing but slavery for women. That’s what it is.”
I hadn’t finished my point, which was also to say that. I’m not saying the ideal ways of being, but at the core of both, being either single through religion or being single through politics, one is these women politician figures are always familiar figures. Either you are a mother or you are a sister. It’s exactly what you said. If you are a single woman politician, you have to fashion yourself in familiar terms. You are the mother figure. You are the sister figure. You are the familiar figure.
On the other hand, one of the main crux of why it’s okay to be single and be a politician or a legislative sacrifice. It’s exactly what you said. That you are sacrificing, “I’m sacrificing my marriage. I’m sacrificing all of that so I can serve you. I’m sacrificing that, so I’m sacrificing for God.” It’s always like marriage is the ideal. Yes, but then you have to sacrifice all of those good things for the people or God. “I have given up everything. I have given up the worldly life.” There are unlimited ways. That’s what I wanted to say.
We might not consider them role models or maybe we might consider them role models, but keep in mind that the underlying principle is sacrifice. The underlying principle is that it’s marriage and marital bliss is the ideal. Also, the idea is that it’s a limited way of being. What is that? This strikes me especially in the American context with, let’s say, Condoleezza Rice and Ralph. There’s such a discussion about why a politician has to be married and only then can be a prime minister. In the Indian context, it’s exactly the opposite because the logic is different. The logic might be of sacrifice, but the logic is there. That is what I find.
I do, too. First of all, I didn’t know this. I wouldn’t have guessed it. The lesson in this is how arbitrary this is. If two cultures are democracies and one says, “You are going to be a better politician because you are married.” The other one says, “You are going to be a better politician because you are unmarried.” Then what should matter is that your relationship status should not matter whether you are a good or bad politician.
Ketaki is a researcher. That’s why I’m bringing up this point. I do hope, Ketaki, that you take it up and work more on this. I have been thinking of a book along these lines, “Who are the single women goddesses in India?” Next to none. If you look in my home state, the mother goddess is a very revered and venerated object of religious fascination worship in India. We worship Shakti, which is a personification of the mother goddess. In my home state, it is a day festival celebrating the goddess Durga. The goddess is also celebrated as a mother and as a wife.
She’s Shiva’s wife, Parvati. She’s the mother of Lakshmi, Ganesha, Saraswati, and Kartikeya, these are her four children. The Durga Puja that is celebrated, comes from Kailash Parvat, which is a mythological creation in the heavens to the earth to be with her family. That’s when we worship her for five days. That worship of the mother goddess ends with what I find a very regressive and divisive custom called Sindur Khela where married women do an art. They take a plate and they put sweets, flowers, and vermilion. They put vermilion on the forehead of the goddess. They touch her feet, they break a piece of sweet or sandesh as we call it here, put it on the lips of the mother goddess, and then smell vermilion on each other.
This is a custom, which is only meant for married women. As newspapers are trying to make it fashionable. They have brought in these widows from Vrindavan, transgender women are being welcomed into these Pooja committees. The point is that I want, Ketaki, to enlighten me and maybe pursue research on this. Who are the single women goddesses? There are close to none. Who are the single women in Indian mythology? Everything is about Sita in Uttar Pradesh where she proved her innocence and her virginity to her husband, the great Lord Rama.
Who are the single women in Indian mythology? Is it Shurpanakha? Ravana’s sister expressed her physical desire towards Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana, who was a married Indian prince or God. She was shamed, and her nose was cut off. Is it Ahalya who expressed desire and was turned into stone? You said, there is this thing. Why is it that women are not given houses? Why is it that widows are asexualized? Why is it that divorced women are scared to say that they are divorced? It’s because there is this assumption that single means sexually unbridled. Single means promiscuous. Single means not conforming to the ideology, the institution, and the hegemonization of monogamy through marriage.
Therefore, a single woman is a khuli tijori. She’s dangerous. She must be controlled, tamed, brought to task, punished, judged, and labeled. If you see the characterization of single women in popular culture in serials like you have The Bold and the Beautiful or Baywatch, We have had many serials like this, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii. It’s nowhere compared to Baywatch. These are family soaps. If you see the projection of single women, what was it? She was the unmarried bua, the father’s unmarried sister who lived with the father and his family, and she was a troublemaker in that family. She’s either gossiping, or she’s mixing some poison in the food, or she has her eye on the brother’s wife and the property. She’s a troublemaker.
She is a widow. All in white, pious, all day she’s cooking, she’s taking care of her brother’s children, she’s bringing them up, or she’s the nanny. If you see the characterization, if you see the OTT because we have got Netflix and we have got Amazon. If you see the portrayal now, there are serials like Four More Shots, which show urban single women as poor men’s Sex and the City.
We did a survey during the lockdown of the financial troubles that single women had in our community. I went with that survey to newspaper editors. Again, most of them were men. They were telling me, “Come on, Sree, what are you trying to say that single women have financial problems? You guys have no responsibilities. You are living it up. You are having affairs. You are sleeping around. You are having the time of your life going on solo holidays. You are having affairs with married men. Look at Four More Shots. That’s your life.” I was like, “Are you mad? That is my life? I can’t remember the last time I went on a date. I just booked my mother’s appointment. I’m taking my sister for her COVID vaccine. What are you talking about? I don’t have this life.” That’s the projection.
Hearing the two of you speak about this, on one hand, it hurts my heart to know the amount of suffering that’s happening out there. The oppression of people who feel like they don’t have a choice and the fact that their contributions are being overlooked. This is one of the things that happens worldwide because people hold marriage at such high status. By marrying, you are good, you are contributing, and you are making the world better. If you are not doing that, you must be making the world worse, or at the very least, not contributing in some way.
Sree, as you are talking about, single people are involved in emotional labor. They are more likely to care for their parents. They are more likely to contribute to the arts, the sciences, and entrepreneurship because they have oftentimes bandwidth or the ability to choose and so on. I’m a psychologist by training, so I’m focused on the individual. I have learned a lot about sociology. I have learned a lot about anthropology and history as a result of this project.
My focus is often on the individual because what I want are more Ketakis and more Srees in the world. Not just, if you look around, you might find them, but when they are at the dinner table or they are at one of these ceremonies, they are defiant and unapologetic, and they can speak eloquently about how this life is the right life for them.
It doesn’t diminish a married person’s life. As a project, I want to bring diverse voices and show the many ways that you can live a remarkable life. I believe that these institutions will be moved once you have enough of us because businesses will start to pay attention. It will be in their best interest to hire because they want the best employees to compete for those single employees. They want customers, they will create products, whether it’d be television shows, apartment buildings, or solo vacations because it will be in their best interest. Politicians will start to talk about people rather than families because they want the votes of single people and so on and so forth.
The sad thing is that this is going to take time, and we know this, but my feeling is, I focus on the individual and I reach them through a show. Sree reaches them through her books and her lectures. Ketaki, you reach them through your students, through your papers, and your advising. In that way, my heart is joyous because there are these people who sense the friction. They realize early on in their life that marriage is not right for them, or they are in a marriage that they realize is not right for them. To be able to see folks living good lives as challenging as life can be is exciting they could see there’s another option. Many years ago in India, there was a feeling there was no other option, I suspect.
This association of loneliness with singlehood. I have found that I have been personally very lonely in a lot of my relationships because of disparate value systems. Our attachment and communication styles were very different. Unfortunately, I have only had partners who were they could not match my feminist ideals or what I require from a partner, which is primarily equality. My last relationship ended with this guy saying, “You are a very difficult woman to be in a relationship with.” Finally, at 45, I had the balls to say that I take that as a compliment.
For too long, it’s the women. We wait to be chosen. We dress up and do the Shringar for the man to find us sexually arousing. We are always scared that if we don’t give him the child, then he will marry somebody. Men, even when they leave a woman, like this guy who ended the relationship, within a month, he was hooked up with somebody younger. The same guy who love-bombed me. I was his soulmate. He could move heaven and earth, and within a month, he’s shacked up with somebody else.
The point is, that for most women, this fear of aging is also ingrained in us because of the biological bomb as I call it. What happens is that basically, we are always scared. We always keep our voices down. We are always told, “No, you don’t show your breasts. You don’t show your arms. You don’t show your bare feet. You don’t show your knees because you are getting raped and it’s your fault. If anything bad happens to you, it’s your fault.”
Finally, after being available, pretty, thin, fair, easy, silent, and compromising, to hell with it. This is who we are. It’s time we raise difficult daughters. It’s time men realize that to have us in their lives, they have to up their ante because we are women. We are not looking for the knight in shining armor anymore. We are not looking for, “He’s going to come and put bread on the table. He’s going to give me a sperm.” I can buy better-quality sperm. I can choose the color of my child’s skin. I know people choose all sorts of idiotic things in India, like Brahmin Fair or whatever. If I want, I can do that.
Indian women are working on their emotional health. If you see the discourses around mental health, if you see the number of women who are going in for therapy, who are learning yoga, they are being physically fit, they are going in for alternate. They are learning chakra cleansing, reiki, and pranic healing, and they are going for past life regression. There is a feminine uprising all over the world. It’s high time men stopped using these stupid things like, “You are too difficult. You are too intense.” We are not scared of being too much. What we will not be is too little. That’s what we will not be anymore.
Amen to that. Before Ketaki responds, because I want to hear what she has to say, I want to ask you a follow-up question about something that you mentioned. That is this biological bomb. In your book, you talk about language. I’m obsessed with the language of single living, the words that people use, their meaning, their etymology, and their emotions. You talk about going from bichari to pichari. Can you explain that transition to the reader?
Exactly what I said is that we will not be too little. The Indian woman, the portrayal, for instance, of the single woman was the bichari, abla helpless, abandoned, desolate, lonely, spinster, vidhava, or like ugly. She doesn’t take care of herself. She’s this asexual, shunned, and she’s been rejected by men. Nobody liked her. She’s the aunt who had a skin infection. She’s probably the aunt who could never produce a child. She never got off the shelf. Now, single women like I’m saying, I am not at all intimidated or insulted by a man who finds me difficult. At that point in time, it was a breakup. It’s sad, you feel hurt, and there’s a lot of residual anger and grief that I’m still working through, but when I’m listening to those words, I’m like, “Yes, I’m difficult.” I could speak.
In my first relationship, I was abused. I was beaten at the age of nineteen. From that relationship, I dived right into another relationship at 22 where I was emotionally abused and I was desperate to get married then. When I was 23 or 24, I was single by circumstance. I should be very honest about that because I wanted to get married. I was so hung up on children. As I grew up a very lonely child brought up by aging grandparents in this big house, I always thought, “I will be happy. I will have a big family. My mother never had her in-law.” I finally realized while being dumped unceremoniously, I have received the greatest compliment of my life.
In this relationship, I was difficult. I spoke up. I stood my ground. I called out the bull crap. I refused to be treated like a doormat. I was not going to be an emotional prop or a sexual recreation for a man. No more of that. I’m looking for a partnership. I’m not looking for marriage. What do partners mean? A partner is like a business partner.
It’s 50/50. You do the dishes. I do the laundry. I don’t want to have sex tonight because I’m tired. Like you don’t give me sex when I want to have sex and I’m horny. It’s as simple as that. It’s equal. We have transitioned from being this little helpless, little sad frumpy woman who nobody chose, to being women who are now okay with not being chosen. We are also ourselves discarding men. “No, not good enough. Sorry. Not happening. It’s not good.”
If you look at the girls in my community, one of our chapter leaders told me, “Sreemoyee, there are very young girls joining, so maybe we should not allow them into the community because a 27-year-old, how is she single? She’s going to get married.” They do these interviews before inducting members. I said, “I want to sit on one of these interviews. I want to see.” I can’t tell you, I was mind-blown by the clarity of these young single women. They are saying, “We don’t want to get married. We have had multiple partners.” Some of them are so open with their sexuality. It is so refreshing to see that.
Even something like sexuality, which we thought was, you are either straight or you are gay. That’s the way we grew up. We had no concept of what is a lesbian or gay. We didn’t know all this. Now, women are saying, “No, we are equally attracted to boys and girls.” There are women in my community who are married, who have had children, who are divorced, and then they have found love and partnership. Not marriage, but partnership and a great love with a woman. How wonderful is that?
There’s a saying in the United States, and I think it’s apt for you, Sree. It would go something like that and it would be, “Sree, she’s a jerk.” That is a compliment. That is not a critique. I want to start to wrap. I want to turn it over to you, Ketaki.
I want to go back to one of the questions you raised at the beginning. Are we ahead of our time? I feel that when I ask two questions people I meet. I have been teaching the core single studies over the last several years. This is something I think now that a person has asked about in a book that we are always asked, “Why are you single?” I’m like, “Let’s turn that around.” Let us ask people who are getting married. “Why are you married? Why are you getting married? You couldn’t cut it on your own, right?” I ask that question to people.
I remember, I randomly met a woman and she’s like, “I’m going to get married.” I’m like, “Why?” She got offended. Similarly, I heard a friend who was saying, “My sister is getting married. She recounted the whole story of how she met her boyfriend or husband.” I heard all of that and I said, “Why are they getting married?”
What I’m saying is that is a question that I ask my class. I ask people who want to get married. I’m like, “Why do you want to get married?” I’m talking about people who are financially well-off, who are emotionally secure, who are healthy, and all of that. I think that, apart from the question, has been too many times too much on us. Why do we choose to be single? I think turning back and saying, “Why do you want to get married? Why are you married?”
I remember a colleague of mine got married very late in life. I asked her, “Why is it that you want to get married?” I have to have a satisfactory answer. I don’t know if I have a satisfactory answer, maybe to a certain extent. I think that is the question we need to ask. It’s the question that I have also raised. I’m sure Sree will have read this book and Peter because it’s someone in the US called, Sarah Lamb from Brandeis. She has written a book called Being Single in India. She looked at women. There’s one chapter where she’s looking at single women who are single by choice and who are living their best life. I want to say I’m single by choice. Not just by choice but single by heart. I live my best life this way.
If you put me in a relationship, you put somebody in my house, I will be like, “He or she has to leave.” That’s a thing, but I’m very protective of my space. I understand. She’s looking at these women in one of her later chapters. She’s saying that these women are able to be single. This is a question that I have. What enables single life? We know the difficulties of being single and we don’t need to discuss that, but we also need to discuss what enables it so that we can build those things. From the legal aspect to the financial aspect to the housing, to healthcare, and everything. We need to see what makes it possible to build a better future. She looks at that. She’s saying, “What is enabling these women’s lives of financial stability, high education, and being cosmopolitan.”
When I did a review of this book, I said that I know a lot of women who are cosmopolitan, who are very well-educated, who are PhDs, and who are financially well off but are getting married. My question is, “When you have everything working for you, why do you want to marry?” That’s the question we need to ask. When you have all the means to be on your own, why are you getting married? Rather than saying, “When you have all the means to get married, why are you being single?” When you have the financial means to live on your own, the emotional means to be on your own, you have the cosmopolitan upbringing, you have the education to be on your own and to be single. Why is it that you want to get married? Why is it that you can’t stand up?
That question makes me ahead of my time. That question makes all of us who are asking it ahead of our time. Essentially, what we are questioning and this is very interesting, we are questioning the compulsoriness of couplehood, anyway it has been spoken out. Primarily in India, we are questioning and she has also said the compulsoriness of marriage.
It’s so compulsory for every single person that even now, I don’t want to say something but at least bring it into that, but we do have the debate on same-sex marriage and why that is important. That is important. There’s such a compulsoriness that is the only institution that is going to provide for you financially, emotionally, and in every way. However, we have seen that there are other ways in which one can live and that is equally good. Why are we not using that? That is the question I want to answer.
I’m so happy we were able to do this. This is fascinating. Early in my academic life, I studied mixed emotions and was attempting to answer this question, “Can people feel happy and sad at the same time?” The answer to that question is yes. I know it because I feel happy and sad talking to the two of you. Hearing these two challenges. How 75 million single women and the challenges that they face in this world that is so conforming. That feels like 1960 America in many ways.
I’m happy knowing that the tsunami is happening and that there are people like the two of you who are contributing your voice, expertise, and passion, being bad bitches in a world that doesn’t yet value them, and contributing to the Solo Movement. I appreciate your time, your voice, your knowledge, and your passion and giving it to my readers. This has been wonderful. Thank you.
Thank you for having us. It’s been a pleasure.
- Status Single
- Sita’s Curse
- Queen of Indian Erotica
- Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh
- Single By Choice
- Being Single in India
- Dr. Ketaki Chowkhani
- The Happy Bachelor – Past episode
About Sreemoyee Piu Kundu
Sreemoyee Kundu is a journalist and author of Single Status The Truth about Being a Single Woman in India.
About Ketaki Chowkhani
Dr Ketaki Chowkhani, Assistant Professor at Manipal Centre for Humanities. Teaches, researches Gender, Sexuality, Singles Studies. In her free time she loves to paint, inspired either by poetry she reads or music that she composes.