I find myself, at 22, an old maid.
No, I’m just being dramatic. But you can’t fault me for my dour mood considering that in the past year or so, I’ve discovered that I’ve turned into a minority: unbetrothed, un-hypenated-surnamed and barely past legal age, I’m surrounded by people in my age group who’re taking the leap into holy and not-so-holy matrimony. From primary school friends with Facebook albums full of wedding pictures to discussions about fiancée visas to perfectly serious queries about whether I am married myself (and why not), everyone seems to be quite cozily committed, and more than willing to shout it from the rooftops.
I’m perplexed. Shouldn’t I expect this to happen in, say, five years’ time? Or is there some kind of generational trend in action here – have young women become so chastised by all the pop culture out there about successful, single, “independent” and really very lonely 30-somethings that they’re taking the plunge sooner?
As a census category, the average age of first marriage for Indian women is an almost juvenile 19. But the women I’m thinking of are from all over the world, exclusively urban, with the English language and exposure to its media in common. All the old bugaboos that we associate with early marriage are noticeably absent. Family pressure is no factor – if anything, their families have tried to talk them out of it. With the exception of one friend who doesn’t believe in premarital sex, religious reasons don’t figure either. All these young women are doing it because they want to.
It’s been a very long time since postponing marriage was rebellious; if anything, it’s now the safe choice. True, the right to delay or opt against marriage were some of the great struggles of our foremothers’ lives. But this was at a time when it was one or the other: career or crèche. Feminism is contextual. Our struggles evolve as society does. And if the experiences, anecdotes and celluloid versions thereof of the popular idea of the modern woman are anything to go by, the fine line between real agency and shallow imitation is lost.
Because here’s reality: women who are actually single by choice remain outside the mainstream. Condi Rice, Sushmita Sen and Geri Halliwell are prominent examples. Their legitimate choices are questioned and analyzed, whereas the temporarily unattached statuses of those who imitate that choice to disastrous results, ignoring the fact that it is simply not suited to them as individuals, are perfectly acceptable. It’s no challenge to the system, after all. Same shackles, different shtick.
Extended (but impermanent) singlehood gives one great company: a hundred chick lit novels, a hundred more TV and film characters, and millions of insecure women hellbent on convincing the world that their impersonations are the good life. But look a little closer. Does anything preoccupy those lives to the extent that men do? Money and Manolos alone do not a happy woman make. My generation reads between the lines while women less than a decade older gullibly swallowed hook, line and clichéd cosmopolitan. Frankly, I can’t think of anything any more conformist than that.
So I’m happy that my generation sees the sense in not buying so completely into myths of superficial empowerment. If we’ve learnt this vicariously from observing the failings of those before us and not through actively participating in the experience of decade-long serial monogamy and glossing over loneliness with lies and pretty trinkets, all the better.
Something tells me that because we are more honest, both to ourselves and in what we choose to project publicly, we’re also more likely to succeed in cracking that modern riddle: what does it take for a woman to have it all?
Maybe most of us are built like chopsticks: perfect when paired, good for nothing but to poke out an eye or tuck in a ponytail otherwise. There’s no shame in that. Getting that baggage out of the way could really help when it comes down to the tasks of pursuing real success and happiness.
And the baggage of divorce? There are no guarantees in life. Marriage, late or early, is always a risk. Staving it off for as long as possible doesn’t actually negate it. It just means you die sooner.
Now all that’s left is for me to get over my engagement envy.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.