I am now 60 years old. I have lived as a single woman for most of the second half of my sixty years. This means that not only do I have no husband, children or a family of my own, but that for the last twenty-three years or so, I have been living alone with one grief and pain after another. First, it was the loss of my 28 year-old youngest sister who was killed brutally and buried by her husband, followed by the death, in the following year, of my parents who were shattered by the terrible death of their youngest daughter. As I was trying to come to terms with these losses, my youngest brother, the youngest child of our family, died, or was killed, suddenly, in mysterious circumstances.
I haven’t recovered from these tragedies, and continue to live alone with these cumulative pains and sorrows. But then, this is the life I have chosen for myself.
I was teaching in high school when my parents started arranging for my marriage. I told them that I was planning to resign my job and join a nunnery. My mother was shocked; she took me aside and asked me why I didn’t want to get married. Began to pester me with one question after another, such as: are you afraid of going through the pain of bearing and delivering children? are you afraid that your husband will beat you up? Are you in love with someone? Etc. I just kept quiet and refused to say anything.
My mother told me then that if I had someone in mind, they would arrange for our marriage. In any case, she told me not to resign my permanent job and make the mistake of becoming a nun. But I was firm in my decision. I entered a Christian religious congregation and lived as a religious sister for seven years. Later, fed up and disillusioned with that life, I left the order and returned home.
Back at home, my parents broached the subject of my marriage again. Once again I had to face the same questions. I had no desire to marry, not because I was scared and frightened of childbirth and child-rearing, or of a wife-beating husband! In fact, in my teens, I had my own sweet fantasies of married life, definite dreams of the kind of man my husband should be, and the kind of loving and intimate relationship we would have with each other. More than this, I imagined how I would give birth to a baby girl like me, and with what delight I would nurse her at my breast, rear and cherish my dear little girl, singing sweet lullabies to her! So I was not scared of marriage in the least. Then, why did I choose to live as a single woman?
I was born the third child in a Dalit Christian household. It was with much struggle and great difficulty that I was able to pursue my studies and become a teacher. My father was in the
Indian army, yet even for him it was an uphill task to find financial resources to educate us.
You can imagine how difficult it would have been for parents who depended on uncertain daily wages to educate their children. Moreover, neither these parents nor their children had any sense of the importance of education. Their chief concern, understandably, seemed to be how to find the next meal—education did not matter as much to them. I was lucky to have had the advantage of a good education, and I wanted that the new social consciousness and knowledge that my education gave me, benefit my people, too. If I got married, I would be forced to confine myself to the narrow circle of my child, husband and family and be of no use to my people. It was this intense urge and desire for freedom to serve my people that prompted me to give up marriage and opt for a religious life. But I could not continue in that for long with self-respect and dignity, because of the many discriminations that I had to face based on caste, language, complexion (colour), educational qualifications, family wealth and status. So I decided to leave and work for the people without getting married. When my mother and friends suggested that I could serve people equally well as a married woman, it had no appeal for me. The reason was that, by that time, I had realised that the institution and structure of marriage and family as they exist today, are not woman-friendly at all. I knew that in a normal Indian family whose centre is Man—the husband—and his pleasure and well-being, a woman has no freedom and identity of her own. I also knew, equally well, the hardships and difficulties a single woman has to face because she has no male surrogate in the shape of a husband! I liked being myself; I didn’t want to lose my self, my being, my freedom and identity, for anyone. With this clarity I decided to live as a single woman...
Bearing all these (and probably because of these bitter experiences) I wrote my first novel in 1992. This novel, Karukku, which introduced me to the literary world as a writer, completely changed the direction of my life. Karukku was followed by Sangati, Vanmam, Manusi and three collections of short stories.
It is this literary life of reading, writing and frequent interaction with university and school students and other activist groups, that gives meaning, energy and joy to my otherwise lonely life. Without these, it would have been nothing but a tale of bitterness, pain, loathing and humiliation. Of course, there were also moments of happiness and delight, which often came as the fruit of my struggles.
After I left the nunnery I struggled hard to find a job, and after I found one there followed a greater and more painful struggle to find suitable accommodation. As I was an unmarried woman and a Dalit, nobody would rent me a house. Finally I managed to get a small room in the house of a Dalit couple who subjected me to indescribable humiliation and restrictions. For those around me in that rural atmosphere, I was an object of unending curiosity as if I were a totally different creature! With great relish, they would dig into the reasons why I wasn’t yet married, although I was well into my late 30s, and shared the conclusions of their research with great glee among themselves. Sometimes all this happened in my hearing. Often, when I passed by, I would hear their biting remarks, unsavory comments and veiled jokes about me. If someone in the shape of a man visited me, that would give them a jolly good time to indulge in suspicious banter about me and my morals. Then, suddenly, without giving me any reason or any notice, I was asked to vacate my room immediately. Naturally I refused as I could not make any alternative arrangement. I was subjected to constant harassment by the owners which left a deep and festering wound in my heart. Then and there, I decided to no longer live in a rented place but to have a house of my own.
For me building even a small house as a single woman was a huge challenge. By the time it was built I was completely worn out. As I was building it in the same hostile locality where earlier I had acquired a plot of land, I had to face a barrage of negative comments such as: ‘Why a house for her? Has she family or children? After her death to whom is she going to leave this house?’ ‘She is wasting her money building this house for just a single person. After she builds her house, she should get married; otherwise she will be sitting in her empty house like a lonely owl!’ ‘In a house shouldn’t there be children to run around and play?’ Even though I heard these and similar comments, I pretended to be deaf and went about my business with a certain nonchalance.
It is true that sometimes these comments angered me, but oftentimes I would just laugh at them. I found it was meaningless to engage in an argument with women who believed that the one and only goal of a person born woman is to get married. So I learnt to carry on with life in silence.
Excerpted from Single By Choice: happily unmarried women! Edited by Kalpana Sharma (Women Unlimited, Rs. 275)