Unmarried women make up a wide cross-section of society. They fight for their rights in a society which deems marriage to be the ultimate goal for an Indian woman. Here we profile four wildly different singletons — a mother to a seven-year-old boy, a lesbian figuring out Mumbai’s reaction to her sexuality, a young girl navigating the unsafe waters of Delhi, and an 86-year-old widow with a penchant for living joyfully
‘It’s all about taking control’
It was marriage that saw Shweta Baxi Tyagi step foot in Gurgaon nine and a half years ago. A few years later, the same marriage introduced her to a different kind of life — that of a single mother.
Baxi, 36, was a victim of domestic abuse and separated from her husband three years ago. She is now both father and mother to her son, Maulik, 7. She is the vice-president of Digiqom, a digital marketing company, and her son is acing his music classes. Life, for the duo, is good. “I live my own life on my terms...it’s more settled now,” she says.
Things, however, weren’t all roses and sunshine. When Baxi decided to separate from her husband, it was difficult, especially emotionally. “I was vulnerable and prone to phases of depression. But then I learned to take control, of myself and of my son,” she says. What hurt the most was the attitude of people around her. She had nobody to turn to. Neighbours started distancing themselves from her — telling their children not to play with Maulik or go over to their place.
Being a single mother meant people were quick to jump to conclusions about her. There was also a lot of judgement about her and her character. Now, Baxi has learned to ignore the taunts. And slowly, things around her are changing too — people have turned helpful and empathetic. Baxi comes from Sonipat, a small town in Haryana. Living in Gurgaon after separation has been a minefield of staving off ‘she’s single so let’s hit on her’ advances. This, from colleagues and people who know she has a young child. Initially, she would get scared when people approached her but experience has taught her how to deal with such advances. “Now I can stave off anyone I want...the more confidence you gain, the easier it gets,” she says.
The best part of her life, she is quick to say, is the freedom she has. It is a freedom from an abusive relationship, from watching her son deal with so much violence at a young age and the freedom to live a life on her own terms. “Things here aren’t as bad as I thought,” she says. “You just have to be careful.”
‘Lesbians aren’t aliens’
I find it annoying when people ask me what it’s like to be single. It’s like being single. It’s not like lesbians are aliens for whom everything is different. I came to Mumbai after breaking up with my last girlfriend. It gave me a sense of how the city changes when you’re single. The advantage of being in a relationship was when it came to finding places to rent. Landlords don’t want to rent to me because I’m a single woman. But when my ex-girlfriend and I said that we were going to live together, it was much easier. I don’t think it struck anyone that two women living together could be a couple.
Straight people tend to think we have this exciting, crazy alternative world. I don’t think we’re more promiscuous or weirder. But yeah, the looks that you get from people are judgmental and the number of people you can have a relationship may not be as many. In India the circle feels tighter.
Being a lesbian in Mumbai is strange. I’m always fascinated by who cares and who doesn’t. Like cabbies don’t care, but a girl grinding against her boyfriend will be eying me like I’m a new flavour of ice cream. My friends know I’m gay but I haven’t come out to my parents yet. I think they know because my mother will do her best to divert attentions of the aunties and uncles who ask when their daughter’s going to get married. What I feel most often from straight people is curiosity, like I’m an exotic ape.
(As told to Deepanjana Pal)
Dwelling in Delhi
Delhi has a reputation. It’s hardly the safest place for women to roam around, alone and after dark.
Shaheen Ahmed, 28, has been living in the capital city for the last three years. And much as she loves it for its vibrant cultural scene, one factor stays unchanged. “I still don’t feel safe here,” she says.
Ahmed is an art historian and writer and works with an organisation that looks at cultural and heritage conservation. She has lived in cities across India – Pune, Mumbai and Chennai – sometimes with family but mostly alone. Ahmed lives in Malviyanagar, south Delhi, with a room-mate. She came to Delhi to finish her master’s at JNU and considers its campus the safest place in the capital city.
But while Ahmed loves her independence, she couldn’t do without the safety precautions that come attached. “I can’t step out of home after a point. I’ve had people leering at me and have received lewd glances on the streets, in the markets, the malls and even in restaurants.
I’ve never felt comfortable on my own like I did when in Bombay or Pune,” she says.
Her safety check-list is quite long, and most of it is instinctive. “It’s much better to be aware and prevent something from happening than regret it later. After the Delhi rape, I’ve become even more conscious,” she says. If she gets late, she makes sure she has male company. If out partying, she either gets friends to drop her home or to drop her to an auto. Once in the auto, she makes it a point to call someone and inform them, sometimes even sending them the auto’s licence number.
She usually parties in a large group. If it is just her and another girl, they leave early to be safe. “In Mumbai, people just let you be. Here two girls going out to a pub means you will be centre of attention,” she says.
But Ahmed has no desire to leave the city she loves dearly, especially since its cultural scene helps her pursue her photography and film-making skills.
‘At my age, I have no regrets’
In her mid-eighties, the demeanour of Malati Joshi of Vile Parle defies the cliches of an elderly woman.
“Life’s been good,” says Joshi, swaying in the kitchen of her flat, stirring vegetables. “I enjoy household chores, especially cooking,” she adds with a wink.
Joshi’s husband, Vishnu, passed away in 1990. The couple had no children. A recent study conducted by the Centre for Development Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai shows that among elderly couples, the women live longer than their husbands. It was in 1955 that Joshi moved from South Mumbai to Vile Parle. Of nearly 2,000 people who moved into Parleshwar Society then, she says most are dead. “But I have two close friends in the society — Usha Kelkar, 85, and Prabha Lele, 90. All three women were widowed in their sixties.” “Today, I let out one room in my home to youngsters who come to the city for corporate jobs. Presently, three youngsters share home with me and they’ve become like family,” she says. Joshi says she is content now, having witnessed the spring and autumn of life. “Everyday, when I’m done with my daily chores, I plonk into my armchair and chant in peace,” she says.