I felt a hot flush of shame when I read a text from a male friend I had been introduced to years ago by my long-term partner. He had seen my Tinder profile and had “super-liked” me. I learnt then that simply uninstalling the app didn’t eliminate your cyber-print. I instantly reloaded it on my phone, so I could erase my identity. I was afraid of being judged by anyone on the app who knew that I had not only been coupled for a decade but had even published a memoir about this grand love. What was he doing on the app, I asked, since I knew him to also be coupled. “Just an experiment,” he said. “My ex-girlfriend thinks I should see more women, she’s been swiping as well for me.”
I soon began questioning my shame at being “found out” and my hypocrisy at even asking why he was on Tinder. Both were unwarranted because, despite being in a long-term relationship, in my weekly feminist column for a Mumbai-based tabloid, I actively define myself as single. At 32, I still live alone and don’t cohabit with my partner, nor am I clinging to him until “the one” comes along. I am happily unmarried and am part of a growing tribe of women who derive intellectual, romantic, sexual and spiritual pleasure from multiple sources. I’m not referencing polyamory, I mean to say our lives are not centred on the premise of one big love, a soulmate that “completes” us.
I suppose this epiphany was too recent to have been internalized. It was delivered to me by a series of friends, the first provocation coming from Mandakini Gahlot, 33, a journalist and film-maker who is the India correspondent for France 24, on the morning after my sister’s wedding. She was recounting a conversation she’d had with our mutual friend the day before, about how she was currently basking in the understated glory of what she referred to as small loves. I remembered how, when Mandakini’s last relationship was ending, and she was manifesting a conditioned anxiety about never being coupled again, I had told her that she was the kind of powerful and intriguing woman who would have multiple lovers across state borders. And I had meant it. I had envisioned this utopic future for her not to appease her, but because I couldn’t imagine one man capable of loving as much of her as there was to fall in love with.
After this conversation, I started thinking about the hierarchies we have been programmed to create, between small loves and big loves. We confine love either to sexual entanglements, unrequited romances, or marriage. We sacrifice, through underestimation, the string of other loves that have imprinted themselves like seals on our hearts. As women, especially, we are taught to treat female friendships as subservient alliances, not as primary relationships. Yet I could argue that Mandakini has been one of the greatest, most fulfilling loves of my life, a constant, while also being the subject of my next memoir. In my dedication, I refer to her as my soulmate. And she is by no means the only one.
Was this legitimate? To have many loves, multiple soulmates, to wilfully not subscribe to the heteronormative notion of “the one”. “Of course it is legitimate… why not?” clinical psychologist Amrita Narayanan began her response to my question. “There are so many bases on which to celebrate relationships, and longevity is just one of them. If you ask around, you might find many married people acknowledging that their One Great Love was someone they didn’t marry, meaning that they are using another index—in this case, intensity of romance—to define the ‘most glorious relationship’,” says Narayanan, who is also the author of the short story collection, A Pleasant Kind Of Heavy And Other Erotic Stories, and the more recent, The Parrots Of Desire, an anthology surveying 3,000 years of Indian erotica.
In her opinion, what long-term relationships offer that short-term ones cannot, is continuity, “which often is helpful not only in and of itself, but in having a continuous sense of identity”. On the other hand, short experiences offer newness, she says. This is what Dossie Easton, the author of The Ethical Slut, calls New Relationship Energy (NRE) and vitality, an important counter to sameness. “I think if someone is successful without a soulmate or long-term love, it means they have been able to find (or maybe they struggle to find) a sense of continuity, and for people who insist on a soulmate, maybe newness gets sacrificed or has to be searched for more actively. Perhaps friends could fill in the gaps in both cases,” she says on email.
Another writer who has validated my preference for the solitude of singlehood, coupled with the plenitude of abundant intimate relationships, is the Chennai-based Sharanya Manivannan, author of the short story collection The High Priestess Never Marries, and a more recent book of poetry, The Altar Of The Only World. “So many of us are single, often not by choice, but so few of us think about singleness as anything other than an aberration. We’re conditioned to expect, want and shortchange ourselves because of the belief that one person will complete it,” she says. Manivannan, 32, defines herself as someone who is both consciously as well as circumstantially single, “which is to say I chose to interrogate my particular scenario and understand the structural reasons (mostly to do with gender inequality) that render me un-partnered”. She confesses that she does sometimes feel the absence of a partner, because she enjoys the intoxication of caring for a person in a particular way. But she never loses sight of how that is only one particular way to care, to love, or to have companionship. “One enormous learning on my journey was that my significant others are the people I love, full stop. Romance and sex, let alone the contract of matrimony, need have nothing to do with it,” she adds.
Mumbai-based journalist and writer Anushree Majumdar, 33, whose Facebook status updates are rife with charming tales of her Tinder exploits, also does not subscribe to the belief in one perfect, ultimate soulmate. She identifies as consciously single, because she isn’t entirely convinced she has what it takes to be in a long-term, monogamous relationship. “The thing I find myself saying the most to any lover, whether it is a one-night stand or somebody for a little longer, is, ‘let’s just be kind to each other’. Because it’s the kindness and intimacy of a regular boyfriend or partner that I miss the most…. Each person in my inner circle (and in my bed) fulfils a certain role and need and I’m sure I do the same in their lives.”
Why it had taken me so long to arrive at this revelation about the legitimacy of loving in plural is anyone’s guess. It’s because conversations about non-monogamous relationships are still not mainstream, and, when they are, are often steeped in shame and secrecy. “This is something my single friends and I talk about with each other, because we’re helping each other navigate the single life,” says Majumdar “We’re all ballsy and privileged enough to live the way we want, but judgement can bite us if and when it comes our way, which it mostly does from married folks.”
I, for one, am fortunate to count my married friend, an executive editor at a leading literary publishing company, among my many loves. A week ago, I returned to our Airbnb at midnight after the Jaipur Literature Festival’s closing dinner at Amer Fort all excited because she was up after her long evening siesta. When I went upstairs, she and I sipped on Solan Number One as we lay in bed nursing the munchies in our PJs, watching back-to-back episodes of Sex And The City. We had enlightening conversations about each other’s “number”, a reference to an episode in which one of the show’s characters, Miranda, has to list all her sexual partners since she has just found out that she has contracted chlamydia. As I was falling asleep, it dawned on me how the iconic series had ended, with Big looking Carrie Bradshaw in the eye on the Seine and saying, “Carrie, you’re the one.” Even though the last scene of the finale showed her reunited with her besties in New York, her happily-ever-after was premised on Big’s declaration.
Would there ever be any equivalent cinematic ending for single women? Or is it that by virtue of being un-partnered, we must make do with the myth of the cat lady (incidentally, a scenario that caused Miranda much anxiety)? Could it not be possible that we are, in fact, already living our blisses, content not to expend our energies in futile search operations for one person to complete our complexity?
Why settle for the one when you can love so many?
Rosalyn D’Mello is the author of the erotic non-fiction memoir, A Handbook For My Lover, out in paperback this month by HarperCollins India.