Let’s clarify at the outset that Single by Choice: Happily Unmarried Women! is not — as some would immediately assume — a book of angry rants spewing venom against men. Instead, this anthology of essays, edited by Kalpana Sharma, is about that bizarre concept unthinkable in our part of the world: freedom of choice as applied by women to their own lives.

Nowhere are women more limited for choice than on the subject of marriage. From a very early age, marriage is pushed as the end goal for almost every girl, as the defining moment when she can start to experiment with, and experience, life. Want to wear make-up (for many of my generation, at least)? Do it after marriage. Want to travel? After marriage, with your husband. Want to live on your own? Here’s hoping you can — after marriage.

It’s not surprising then that, for most of the essayists, remaining single was a choice they made after experiencing a little bit of life. As they dove headfirst into fulfilling careers and enjoyed the financial independence it brought, as they grew more mature and observant, as their parents eased up with ‘what will people say?’, the pot simmering with marital possibilities kept getting pushed to yet another backburner, until it eventually fell off the stove altogether.

Sports journalist Sharda Ugra gets it spot on. Having built a comfortable life, with her own apartment and freedom to do whatever she wants, whenever she wants, she asks a very pertinent question of Marriage itself: “What is it you offer me in exchange for turning away from this life?”

Standard answers pour in: security (not always; married women are routinely threatened with eviction by husbands and in-laws), companionship (husbands do die, even the most loving ones), and children to safeguard against loneliness in old age (until they move away). Social validation is a very important factor: marriage is seen as an achievement, cementing the fact that a woman was pretty enough, desirable enough and valuable enough to be acquired by a man.

A book of essays presents the other side of the story, heart-warming and funny accounts of women evading the pressures of settling down

Fairly weak arguments, really, but alas, so deeply rooted.

As for counterarguments, the first would probably be that women who choose to remain single must have some raging vendetta against men. The actual case is far different. Several writers mention wanting — or having had — long-term relationships with kind, caring and sincere men, but almost all are aware that once marriage is formalised, the dynamics of a relationship change. This is not hostility towards men, but towards typified gender roles which are strengthened within the institution of marriage.

It is not a question about domesticity either, of mad, career-driven ‘harpies’ who refuse to cook and clean. These women cherish their homes and speak of the joy they get from cooking and taking care of their houses, their families and their friends. Perhaps it is an aversion to having their domesticity dictated by someone else. They must exchange how they ‘want’ to live, with how they ‘must’ live.

For men, it would be similar to being a seth, as opposed to working for a seth. As Laila Tyabji, chairperson of an NGO for women’s empowerment, writes in ‘Being Single is Not Being Solitary’: “life on my own terms seemed increasingly delightful and, gradually, the compromises and adjustments of marriage seemed more and more claustrophobic.” She goes on to point out that this does not mean celibacy, adding, “My idea of bliss became ‘a lover who lived down the lane’.”

The second argument would be placing the greater good above individual choice. The pursuit of individual choice is often considered detrimental to the fabric of society and, more often than not, is not expected of women. Journalist and author Freny Manecksha writes in ‘Happily Unmarried Ever After’ about campaigns in the Parsi community, encouraging marriages and procreation. The goal was to raise the numbers of a dwindling community, and it involved denouncing single Parsi women as “selfish” for not wanting to become baby-making machines. The women towards whom these campaigns were aimed rightfully laughed in the campaigners’ faces.

Most of the 13 essays in the book are heart-warming and funny accounts of young women evading the pressures from family of “settling down.” In ‘Slouching Towards Singledom’, magazine editor Aditi Bishnoi sketches a hilarious image of her parents creating a marriage profile for her. Others write of finding one tactic or the other to delay or avoid meetings, keeping at it long enough to limbo-dance their way out from under the “marriageable age” bar that grows comfortingly closer with each passing year.

But, as human rights’ activist Asmita Basu writes in ‘I’m Not in Transit’, the point “is not to glorify a single life or denounce all ‘marrieds’. Each state has its unique advantages and disadvantages.” And so, Single by Choice presents the other side of the story, too, with several essays taking note of the pitfalls of never having been in a conscious coupling.

There is, of course, social ostracisation — at a wedding celebration, Manecksha is not allowed to participate in a Parsi fertility ritual of planting a mango sapling. There are workplace issues, where a single woman is not given the same considerations as married women who have husbands and children and so can claim “social legitimacy.”

Then, most importantly, there is the difficulty of finding a place to live and being allowed to live there in peace. In ‘Single — And Free’, copy editor Sherna Gandhy writes of single women having to endure “suspicious glances from watchmen, neighbours”, and of being “seen by the censorious as being ‘fast’” — a sentiment echoed by Tyabji as well as doctor and professor Vineeta Bal, whose every visitor to her university campus housing — man, woman, young, old — is scrutinised, the implication, again, being that the lady of the house has — by virtue of being unmarried — no virtue to speak of. In Dalit writer Bama’s essay ‘Uphill Flows the River’, being a single woman in her village is such an anomaly that “her neighbours advertise to all and sundry that I live alone”, and by doing so, put “my safety in jeopardy.”

Essentially, what it all boils down to is this: women are tired of being told how to live and some of them are finding the courage to do something about it, by not doing what is expected. They have nothing against marriage, but they don’t see it as the right option for them. And that’s all they ask, for the freedom to live as they please.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Single by Choice: Happily Unmarried Women!
Edited by Kalpana Sharma
Women Unlimited, India
ISBN: 978-9385606229

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 5th, 2020