Wednesday, December 12, 2007


My letter to the Editor of The Statesman Kolkata today

First the original article and then my letter

Gilded butterflyWhether it be the malcontent or the robust social animal, single women have the time of their lives obfuscating the distinction between being and becoming, writes Arpa Ghosh Society has a thing about single women who end up on the leeward side of the marital ocean and gradually lose their glow and freshness in the way preserves over a time lose their flavour atop shelves of a confectionery. Such women, thanks to the pink rupee, are on the rise. We find them everywhere; in corporate houses, banks, share markets, the entertainment industry, teaching institutions and tailoring shops. Ritwik Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara tackles the phenomenon of an attractive working woman compelled to stay single due to poverty, family commitment and betrayal in love. Nita's prototypes remain. But another kind of single woman exists: educated, financially secure and possessing a sturdy personality. A third type ~ rich, accomplished, good-natured, pliable, and well-connected ~ remains mystified about its spinster status. Yet others do not marry owing to such congenital diseases as asthma, heart ailment, epilepsy, insanity and gynaecological problems. Also, eligible women suddenly find themselves over the hill buried as they are under a huge corporate workload. The bottomline is there is no "single woman", only single women, each with her set of private demons. The single women in India do not get normal, nourishing, hassle-free sex. Much of their efficiency is hampered because young, redblooded, intellectually active women are deprived of a necessity in life. Dearth of sex could push mature virgins into either of two pitfalls: "eternal waiting", dressing up and behaving like 21-year-olds hoping to get married even when pushing 40; or "premature aging", donning neutral shades and mingling with the wallpaper in their prime in a bid to convince themselves that they do not need sex. Singletons in India who try to solve the problem by engaging in "zipless sex" (Erica Jong's term) almost immediately realise that there is no such thing. Nemesis follows in the guise of unrequited love and expectation, stalkers, blackmailers, irate neighbours (and relatives), abusive wives, hysterical children (of partners), hard-hearted, exploitative lovers and so on. Family ties are still strong in this country and a man caught in the act will inevitably fall back into his cosy slot in the Great Indian Family. State apparatuses like popular fiction, cinema and television serials with their grand portrayals of khandan, parivar and bharatiya sanskar work round the clock to reinforce the hegemonic power of family. So, the single woman is at a disadvantage. Once retribution follows, in the absence of such social buffers as husband, child and in-laws, the single woman finds it difficult if not impossible to salvage her social respectability. NGOs are known to help battered wives. Are they equally keen to come to the aid of single women who take drastic measures to solve the problem of sex? Living in with a bachelor is hardly an option. First, who would be fool enough to live with a man technically free for marriage? Second, as living together denotes a lack of trust in and respect for each other, self-respecting men and women often find it an inconvenient and uncomfortable arrangement. Time hangs heavy in a singleton's life. The average married woman has household chores galore and her husband and children's associations to cater to. The singleton with no such occupation is often overcome by a sense of futility. The more enterprising and creative people use their long leisure hours to propel their careers and hone their talents ~ singing, writing, bonsai and so on. The singleton is also an enthusiastic member of cultural committees and social organisations. Like Chaucer's Wife of Bath most singletons are merry vacationers if they have the money for it. But often in the absence of the conventional family set-up, the singleton falls prey to hypochondria, nervous disorders and depression. A pressing problem is the family. The normal human being lives by planning for the future and working to meet its challenges. For most single women, the future stretches out like a desert bereft of hope and companionship. These women either live with aging parents, who are rapidly losing their vigour, or with married siblings, partaking vicariously of their future, or alone in flats and hostels developing eccentricities. In the absence of spouse and children, these women find it difficult to define for themselves the meaning of family as it exists for married women or even divorced mothers. The single woman, even while struggling to form unconventional relationships associates family with husband and child. A chartered accountant singleton , otherwise competent in solving her personal and professional problems and a dab hand at networking, keeps telling me that a family, run according to the husband's decisions is bound to flourish since a man's knowledge of the world is "superior" to a woman's. Resourceful singletons go slow on their married friends and try to form sororities with other singletons and women with "imperfect" lives ~ childless, battered, divorced, separated, lesbian ~ to sidestep the cul-de-sac of the empty future. The good thing about such associations is that women unionise and help each other; the discouraging element is the atmosphere of misanthropy and bitterness that pervades such sororities. As there is only a nominal number of unemployed single women (unemployment is a luxury that can only be enjoyed by married women today), young, single women usually have more spending power than their married friends. In the present day of consumerism, the married woman spends most of her pin money on her child, and her core money she saves for her child's future. Hence on a day's outing, spinsters outdo married women in splurging. The future may be bleak, but the present with its financial freedom, is rosier for the singleton than it is for the average married woman whose money like her life is no longer her own once baby arrives. A single woman, in the absence of inheritance, has to plan of her future, while a happily married woman can leave such thoughts to her capable and committed husband. A single woman is a covert threat to her married friends. It is best that the unpleasant secret be out in the open. Her body unspoiled by motherhood, a singleton in her prime has a sex appeal missing in her married counterpart. The relationship between a spinster and a married woman friend at this juncture of their lives is usually coloured by a curious mixture of guilt, jealousy and insecurity. A spinster, insecure of her status and sensitive to her biological clock ticking away, often envies her married friend's household, husband and children, hitting out at her with mean remarks about her "submissiveness to the male ego", her "secure future" and so on. If on the other hand, the singleton is gradually getting over her craving for home, husband and child, the tables turn. She gives off an aura of enjoying life to the brim, free from its trials and tribulations. The married woman is often cutting about her spinster friend being "loaded", "heartless" and "uncaring". Whichever way the wind may blow, the relationship between a singleton and her married friend is rarely free from irony and misunderstanding. A wariness and unspoken competitiveness creeps in sooner or later. A spinster's relationship with men is nebulous at its best, thorny at its worst. With the passing years, the singleton finds herself closer to her father who, once he overcomes his anguish and shock, gradually takes prides in her self-reliance, financial soundness and social status. Also, providing "male protection" to his increasingly proud, lonely daughter gives the father a sense of purpose and direction in his own retired life. A singleton finds herself in a twilight zone of patriarchal suspicion and puzzlement even among her own male relatives. Is she an asset to fall back upon when the wife is in her mother's place? Or is she a millstone? Is she an innocent abroad? Or is she capable of taking care of herself? Men, avuncular in their concern and predatory in their stake in her life, are willing to help but only if she concedes her "weakness" and "inferiority". A singleton flaunting wealth, status and connections wreaks havoc on the vulnerable male ego. In their relations with her, men are monitored by their wives. One single woman tells me that soon after her brother got married, she stopped confiding in him as she could sense that the sister-in-law did not like it. The brother is unhappy but cannot remedy the problem. Another singleton recalls how one night when the lights in her flat went off, she approached the neighbour who repaired the fuse. But all the while, she was uneasy as she could sense the wife's irritation. Perhaps the only man of her generation that the singleton is comfortable with is her male colleague. They share the same workplace, the same professional concerns and they grow old together. Daily interaction takes away much of the sexual friction. Over lunch, tea and the occasional dinner, a bond, neither sexual nor kinship but with subtle shades of both, grows between them. Though few admit it, most singletons go to their male colleagues for advice, consolation and encouragement, not overtly ~ oh, no, the single woman is too proud to do so ~ but covertly, in between discussing work and office politics. In some cases if the man is a chauvinist, wolf or romantic, this could flare up into an extramarital affair. But in many cases, male colleagues are jealous of her competence and enterprising nature. Often some men have the bad taste to comment on her "lack" of sex appeal and sexual frustration, hitting below the belt. A sudden flare-up on the part of the single woman in the workplace is regarded as neurosis and hysteria. The same tantrum in a married woman is viewed more sympathetically. A single woman walks on slippery ground with the opposite sex. I am not sure I agree with psychologists who claim that all women have strong maternal instincts. But the majority does. The single woman is no exception. Her deepest sorrow is not that she could not get a man, but that she could not mother a child; offer it her love and protection. Most single women either suppress their maternal instincts to become hard, inflexible social beings or shower their affection on nephews, nieces, children in the neighbourhood, and small, defenceless creatures like kittens, birds and puppies. Adoption is not yet a viable option in this country. The single woman lacks the social infrastructure to adopt a child even if she is in a financial position to give it an average home and future. In the eventuality of her death, the child loses everything. Social acceptance of an adopted child is still so poor in our country that in the absence of the male parent, the child is bound to become insecure and display behavioural problems. For the single woman, nurturing her sibling's child seems to be the only option, a second-best option as double love and hope of future gain do more harm than good to the child who often develops the "little emperor" syndrome. Finally, we come to the mainstay in a spinster's life; her work. Freud believed that unfulfilled sexual desire unleashes creativity. Libido, failing to find an outlet in love channels itself in work. Sex or the lack of it troubles a singleton. But it also propels her to channel her energies to work. A single woman brings enthusiasm and imagination to her work rarely equalled by her married colleagues. For the married woman, office work is often disagreeable, tiresome and repetitive as it eats into her family time. Often, a married woman forgets that she is a professional. Her work takes backseat to her family commitments as she unconsciously looks for ways to play truant. A single woman has nothing to hold her back from giving her 100 per cent to her work. The singleton often becomes a drudge on whom work is piled on relentlessly. Discontent and unhappiness creep in as the single woman senses the discrimination but is too intricately wired into the office juggernaut to do anything about it. The average married woman defines herself as wife and mother in the context of the larger family set-up. Who is the single woman and what has she to show for her life in this result-oriented consumerist world that prioritises becoming over being? Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters forged their identities in the male-dominated literary scene and critics link their artistic excellence to their spinster status. But all women are not as motivated or as richly endowed as these redoubtable spinsters. What about average singletons? At the end of the day, the married woman has an educated son and/ or a marked daughter to show for her labours in this world. The single woman has no such noticeable trophy to flaunt. Despite her efforts to be self-reliant, healthy and honest in her work and relationships, society frowns upon her for failing to fit into neat categories of wife and mother and rarely loses an opportunity to remind her about the "emptiness" of her life. In social occasions and friendly meets, all single women have cringed at spiteful reminders from "well-wishers" about their single status. It is a failure that cannot be forgiven because it challenges set, stereotypical ideas about women. With the growing number of single women in our society, it is time to rethink certain "given" social patterns and categories. (The author is senior lecturer in English, Vivekananda College for Women, Kolkata.)

The Editor
The Statesman


This is in response to Arpa Ghosh’s incisive writeup ‘ Gilded Butterfly’ in yesterday’s Statesman. Indeed the concept of a ‘single woman’ is against the laws of Mother Nature, as it is aptly said that ‘ menstruation is the weeping of the uterus due to the failure of the implantation of the ovum’.
Ms. Ghosh is stretching the point too far when she says that a single woman is a threat to her married friends. Sex appeal in a woman, whether married or single, depends on many factors and a body unspoiled by motherhood is the least of them. By the way who says motherhood spoils a woman’s body? Menopausal mothers are quite often more attractive than menopausal spinsters.

Thanking you


Yudhistir Choudhury

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