The love issue 2018: Changing the narrative
When journalist and writer Sreemoyee Piu Kundu set out to unearth “the truth about being a single woman in India”, as the subtitle to her new book Status Single puts it, she was in for a nasty shock. It’s not surprising that India treats its single women (21% of the population, according to the book—that’s about 74 million women) with disdain, if not with undisguised contempt, but the range of testimonies Kundu uncovered, by speaking to nearly 3,000 urban women, is staggering. The voices of these women—unmarried, by choice or circumstance, separated, divorced or widowed—will hopefully force a reconsideration of the patriarchal mindset that still “decides” what’s appropriate and what’s not for women in 21st century India.
When love means giving away your heart to many people—many times
45-year-old Arundhati Ghosh, executive director of an arts foundation in Bengaluru, calls herself not single or double, but ‘multiple’, as she believes in polyamory, and not in prefixing labels on relationships. She says her sexual delineation allows her the freedom to love and care for as many people as she would like and is drawn to. ‘Some relationships are fleeting, while others starting off as long-term sometimes tend to transform with distance or life-changing circumstances and environments and unless one has been abused or exploited, the end of a relationship isn’t quite a full stop, but a semicolon, as in, you can’t stop loving someone once you start to love them. There is always a possibility of a connect again, as relationships are not finite,’ believes Arundhati, while quoting John Berger, ‘“Never again shall a single story be told as though it was the only one.”’ Polyamory to Arundhati, is consequently the extension of a deep political and life belief where she has abiding faith in collective diversity and the possibility of myriad voices being heard in a poly world.
Arundhati, however, confesses that she grew up feeling that she was ‘too fickle’ and a ‘misfit,’ since she didn’t fit the overarching narrative created by books, films, social conditioning and popular culture that harped on the ideal of heteronormative, viz. ‘one true love.’ ‘I told myself I need to fix myself—and was unclear why I was liking multiple people. Conventionally, a woman like me would be bracketed alongside sex workers and be labelled a slut/whore, with terms in my mother tongue like barowari (public property), implying a woman who slept with many people,’ reasons Arundhati who was in love with two men by the end of college and couldn’t stop loving one, as both were uncomfortable and jealous with the idea of she sharing her affections.
‘A choice had to be made,’ reminisces Arundhati, who took time to own her sexuality, an intense 8 to 10 years, that involved her reading books like Ethical Slut, which lent her an understanding of alternate possibilities before she ‘came out’ as a polyamorous person, in her late 30s. She says that her ex-husband, who remains a good friend even now and is very close to her widowed mother, ‘worries about my emotional security even to this day telling me that I might be lonely and finally all my lovers will marry or settle down with someone, leaving me in the lurch....’
Dispelling the popular perception that polyamory means the licence to sleep around with a lot of people, Arundhati emphasises on the word ‘amor’, meaning love. Currently involved with multiple people in different cities and time zones, she says there is a huge amount of time and emotion invested in each relationship that is equally deep and desirous. She says, ‘I always tell a person right at the start that I’m a polyamorous person as I think the key is to act with emotional responsibility and curb one’s greed knowing that hearts may get broken. And when I am told that the person I am interested in is strictly monogamous, I have to deal with it, too.
‘Also, just like there are multiple variables with a couple who could be constantly pushing boundaries, for instance, sexually, like enjoying a threesome, in polyamorous relationships, too, there are diverse approaches to living. For example, if one of my lovers has a new lover now and he naturally wants to spend more time with his new partner who may not want his past creeping between them, I have to make peace with us spending less time these days and also not having sex anymore. Some polyamorus relationships are based on one primary partner, but I don’t live that way. I have never felt that’. She feels that men being assumed to be ‘naturally polygamous’ are more socially acceptable than a woman owning up to being polyamorus since we naturally assume that men being men are born to sow their seed wherever they desire. So while adjectives like ‘horny’ and ‘flirty’ are used commonly to describe a man with a roving eye, a woman who does the same is viewed as a cultural and moral affront and immediately slut-shamed and seen as a ‘dangerous’ influence on society. ‘My mother once asked me: “If you give your heart away so many times, won’t it get over one day?” I gave her the example of the Kalpataru tree, a wish-fulfilling, eternally giving tree in Hindu mythology… the heart is capable of loving infinitely.’
Being a single woman with a disability is a brutal battle, but it’s worth fighting
29-year-old Pune-based content writer Sudha (name changed on request)...also dreams of meeting her ‘companion’ organically, one day. Sudha was born with a neurological disorder called Spina Bifida and today walks with the support of crutches, having had her first spinal surgery when she was all of 4 months. ‘Till 25, my parents never broached the topic of my marriage. When I was a teenager, my father had told me how I may never get married and should rather focus on being self-reliant. But I was pretty certain that I wanted to settle down, and told my parents they should start looking. We attended a couple of open house meetings and sammelans organised within my community for disabled people, but I realised most urban, well-educated, independent men were keen on a “normal” life partner who didn’t have their own shortcomings,’ says Sudha, whose run-in with so-called ‘normal’ men is reflective of the deep regression prevalent in India.
‘Someone told my father he needs to give the groom a lot of money failing which I will never get a “good guy”. I was once chatting with a man for a while and finally we both met in Pune and he said to my face that after seeing me all he felt was sheer sympathy. Once, a normal guy, who was a colleague, and I came close to getting intimate, when he suddenly revealed he had a girlfriend. Thankfully, we had not had sex. One day, out of the blue his girlfriend called me from his number and started abusing me, saying because I am disabled I was desperate, labelling me a slut. When you are disabled, like I am, no one sees you as just another single woman who dreams of companionship with dignity. You are expected to remain an object of sympathy. Luckily, my family is liberal. I know, I am probably expected to stop dreaming about finding love. But I believe in equal partnership and I don’t see why I can’t stake my claim to it,’ she adds.
Shankar Srinivasan, co-founder of Inclov, the world’s first matchmaking mobile application for people with disabilities and health disorders claims that within India’s 26.8 million disabled people, 42% never marry. Started as an offline matchmaking agency, known as Wanted Umbrella, within 7 to 8 months, Shankar found a membership spilling to 2,000 men and women from all over the world. ‘We soon realised we needed technology to scale this,’ says Shankar, who in 2015, which was the year of start-ups in India, began work to build an app. A crowdfunding campaign sourced Rs6,15,000 from 143 people globally, leading to the recruitment of two developers, one of whom was visually impaired. Today, the membership of Inclov has globally grown to touch the 10,000 mark, with the age bracket spanning 18-60 years. ‘Most single disabled women are reclusive as they are viewed as liabilities for their parents and larger society. Most of them don’t socialise much either, so the idea was to make the matchmaking experience as mainstream as we could. Which is why the meet-ups that we organise aren’t reserved exclusively for the disabled, and neither is membership on the app. In fact, 40% of our members don’t have disabilities,’ says Shankar. On dating apps, users either reject people with disabilities outright or ask questions like, ‘Can you have sex and produce children?’
Sudha is a member of Inclov and has corresponded with some men, none of whom have volunteered to come and meet her in Pune yet. ‘I will not settle for someone just because I am on crutches,’ she concludes with hopeful determination.
Edited excerpts, with permission from Amaryllis. Status Single will be available in retail and online stores from 12 February.