Tag Archives: singledom

5 Decades Of Desire: The 30s

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I am often assailed by longing for the woman I was at the cusp of 26, neither too young to know nor old enough to know too much. Not only was I free-spirited and passionate, but I was also met by what I sought. Except, as I sensed even then, I could not keep them: those entanglements, that exhilaration. And so, I am also often assailed by compassion for the woman I was at the cusp of 26.

This year, I will turn 32. But right now, I am 31 – “a viable, die-able age”, as Arundhati Roy unforgettably wrote in The God of Small Things. I prefer to focus on the first word. There is so much that is viable about being a never-married woman in her 30s.

It is true that on any given day, I am likely to feel more lucky than lonely. The blessings of being unburdened are easy to count, and I have the luxury of counting them often. But it’s not all lovers and solo travel and disposable income and possibility. It is also, more often, practical thinking and responsibility and the weariness of combat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

But why is it that I feel lucky? More than anything else, it’s because I’ve outgrown so much conditioning about what a woman’s life should look like. Even, in fact, what a wild woman’s life should look like. I’m more interested in what it is. Do I believe in Love with a capital ‘L’?  I’ve found pondering the question a waste of the imagination, when I now much prefer the small ‘l’, the verb, the everyday extravagance of being and feeling instead of waiting.

This life that is neither tragic nor in need of rescuing is anomalous, and I recognise why it’s necessary to not present a unidimensional version of it. So here is another truth: that there is melancholy. Last year, I climbed into an autorickshaw wearing an empire waist tunic and the driver gently suggested that I move to the middle for a less bumpy ride, as I appeared to be newlywed and “carrying”. I struggled not to cry on that ride, not because of anything as inane as mistaking concern for body shaming but because those things are not true for me, and may never be true. I am soft and never-wed and I carry memories, desires, legacies and scars, but only and all of me.

But the beauty of being this age, of having arrived here tenderly, toughly, is the sincere acceptance that it’s alright. All of it – melancholy, uncertainty, anger, hunger and even moments of bitterness – is perfectly alright. They are balanced by laughter, courage, wisdom and – yes – pleasures little and large. We are all every age we have ever been. And sometimes I am already all the ages I will ever be. The great moral challenge of my decades to come, should they come, is whether I’ll be able to hold on to both: unyielding principles and petal-perceptive heart.

An edited version appeared in The Indian Express on International Women’s Day, 2017.

The Venus Flytrap: The Loves Of My Life

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She walked in and my jaw fell open. I was onstage, and lost my train of thought mid-sentence. I gushingly apologised to the audience, saying “I’m sorry, I’m so distracted by my friends, thank you all so much for being here!” and half the crowd turned around to see who had made the writer wordless. This particular friend had told me she’d be travelling during my book launch in Chennai last week, but there she was to surprise me – and as I said to her later, she should have worn a feather boa for all the flutter she caused!

It was perfectly fitting, because my new book (The High Priestess Never Marries) is only partly about all the wrong loves. It is in larger part about the right ones. Love for the self, for the world, and for one’s significant others – by which in my case, I plainly and unequivocally mean my friends. Are these platonic friendships? Yes, in a certain very clear-cut sense. But I love holding hands, I love hugging, I rest my head on my friends’ shoulders and they rest their feet on my lap as we talk for hours. I kiss their heads if I don’t want to leave lipstick on their faces. I massage knots out of their backs when they need it. These too are forms of intimacy.

Exhausted the following day, I met another old friend and we literally just slumped on a sidewalk after some sathukudi juice and chattered away. This ease came from years of effort, deep root-reaching. With friends, do things to invest, not impress.

Friendship is grossly underrated in patriarchal society because the cubicle of matrimony is prized above all other bonds.

I took a pool cab home from my sathukudi sidewalk date. Two college-age boys got in and immediately started discussing how painful it was for one of them to hear that a girl they know was seeing someone. They wondered if they would ever find their own “someones”. The next day, I saw another pair of young men in a bookstore pick up a mushy self-help title on romance; one said “Ithu use agum, machan”. I loved this – young men talking openly about their emotions, being willing to learn, and to teach themselves and each other what they need to know. Men of my age and older – empirically, not categorically speaking! – often fail at these things. It made me so happy to actively see the change that feminists like myself have demanded in the personal sphere – one that makes it acceptable for everyone to be tender, vulnerable and hopeful.

I wished the same thing for both pairs of friends I eavesdropped on: that through their societal and sexual “aloneness”, they’d see the love they already have in their lives for what it is.

I wouldn’t want to partner with anyone I don’t love as intoxicatedly as I love my friends. I will never look for a partner or lover to replace anything that my friends give me, for my friendships are not proxies for the real thing. They are the real thing. My significant others. My co-sojourners. The loves of my life.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 12th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

TOI iDiva: UnValentine’s Day

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Wandering through Wonderland, the intrepid young Alice encounters a hubristic Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, wearing a beautiful cravat. The cravat, as it turns out, was an unbirthday present. An unbirthday, he explains, is every one of those other 364 days in a year on which one might also receive gifts. It is, as he says, “a knock-down argument”: by celebrating unbirthdays she can avoid getting terribly hung up on that one day, that albatross, the birthday.

Yes, we all know what Humpty Dumpty’s fate is. He, like some of us, will never get put back together again (although lots of men, and maybe some horse-like satyrs, will try). I know Valentine’s Day can be very hard for some people. Seeing as it’s become increasingly difficult to ignore it even here in Chennai, there seem to be two ways to deal: be Anti-Valentine’s, or be UnValentine’s.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to waste a fortnight, spending thirteen days feeling edgy (and not in a fashionista kind of way) in anticipation of the one that will make you bristly or downright miserable (add a margin for heartsick hungover-ness). To be UnValentine’s is to spend 365 (it’s a leap year!) eating chocolates.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to say you don’t care when you really, really do. To be UnValentine’s is to care – about yourself and how you deserve to be treated.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to secretly buy expensive lingerie just in case someone notices you in your glorious misery and gives you some mercy luck. To be UnValentine’s is to hopefully get laid more than once annually.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to be discouraging of insipidly meaningless extravagance. To be UnValentine’s is to be encouraging of profoundly meaningful extravagance.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to obsessively analyse information on your exes to work out how they’re spending mid-February, and with whom. To be UnValentine’s is to already have them blocked on all your feeds, because there is no day, ever, when unsolicited news of them is welcome to upset you.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to hate pop music because it sucks to be alone. To be UnValentine’s is to hate pop music because it sucks.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to go on a date ironically. To be UnValentine’s is to not have to call it a date in order to feel validated.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to begrudge your coupled friends their coupledness. To be UnValentine’s is to not stoop to entertaining the regrettable idea of coupling with your friends just because they’re around.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to observe Single Awareness Day (SAD). Because, you know, one is so critically unaware of one’s singledom otherwise. To be UnValentine’s is to know one’s loneliness but not be distinguished by it.

In South Korea, Black Day is observed on April 14, eating black noodles and commiserating about being single. In Chennai, this particular UnValentine’s Day happens to once again be a public holiday. You can eat black noodles if you like, but you’ll have to share it with your relatives (how’s that for misery?).

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to Valentine’s what militant atheism is to organized religion. Don’t shake your fist at something that doesn’t exist. To be UnValentine’s is to be a believer: in yourself, and your right to red roses, right-hand rings, assorted ridiculousness and loyally royal treatment. Any day you damn well please.

(“It’s a knock-down argument”.)

Here’s the truth: I’ve never celebrated Valentine’s Day. I have no idea what it means to be wined and dined and defined by one person’s attention on one particular day. What I would miss on that day I might miss on any other day of the year – and so, what I could celebrate on that day, I could celebrate on any other day of the year as well.

Romance is sweet. Revenge is sweeter. But nothing is as sweet as self-respect.

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.

The Venus Flytrap: The Armchair Amourist’s Guide To Valentine’s Day

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I’ve never celebrated Valentine’s Day in my life. Don’t ask me why. But considering the popularity of armchair activism in Tamil Nadu lately (yoo-hoo, bona fide Sri Lankan Tamil here, and yes I am talking to You), I’m sure I’m perfectly qualified to proselytize on the subject.

Presenting then, The Armchair Amourist’s Guide To Valentine’s Day. Because face it – with the torch song graveyard that is your iTunes playlist, no one believes you when you claim to be a cynical misanthrope. Here’s a much more believable list of excuses to justify your chronic inability to get laid.

1. The heart transplant wait list – Want to simultaneously give someone the shivers and get them off your case? Offering them an intense look as you take their hand and whisper, “Thank you for the chocolate heart. May I have your real one now? As in, the organ pumping blood. I want to be around for the next season of Lost and really kind of need it,” should do the trick.

2. Women’s rights – I’ll confess I didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day for a few years running because I was celebrating V-Day, aka Vagina Day, the international campaign to end violence against women. The revolution was my boyfriend (I’ve still got that on a tee shirt). I was simply too busy sending e-cards with visuals of suggestive open fruit and forwards about reclaiming the word cunt to do mushy things with the real one. This probably explains why I find supermarkets so very sexy.

3. Alphabetical objection – Alternately, claim to have a serious issue with the letter V itself. Why does it come before the letter W, which is a double V and therefore twice as cool? Spend the day coming up with a complex theory, invoking words like “semantics”, “hegemony” and “dialectics” as many times as you can. Avoid words like “verisimilitude” and “Voltaire” as far as possible. Then, in the grand tradition of Valentine’s lone rangers, blog it for the miserable masses. If all goes well, by next year, you could even have a chat date with someone you’ve never met in your life (unless Orkut counts as life).

4. Penance – Get by on your glory days. Say you celebrated twice last year, in two different time zones (if you can pull it off, slip in a mention of joining the mile-high club). And that in the interest of fairness, you felt a bit of restraint might be in order this year. You’re planning on celebrating your birthday twice, anyway.

5. Adventures in internationalism – In South Korea, Black Day is celebrated on April 14. Singles go out to eat black noodles and commiserate over their lonely hearts. Tell your friends that in the interest of expanding your cultural perspectives and your palate, you’re going to do this the fully traditional way, and earn your right to be utterly miserable on Tamil New Year.

6. Anatomical accuracy – As someone on a quest for truth and enlightenment, you are shocked by the simplified heart symbol that has come to stand for that most noble of causes, love. Express your disdain by going “visceral realist” (thereby squeezing in a reference to Roberto Bolaño that’ll be sure to impress literary types like, umm, yours truly). Just be sure that any anatomically accurate tattoos you might get aren’t of your heart. We both know that’s really made of marshmallow.

If all else fails, remember: you can still stay at home with your torch songs and a bottle of Shiv Sena-sanctioned non-alcoholic wine. It’s only for a day, anyway. As gastroenterologists say, this too shall pass.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Solo In The City

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I am not Carrie Bradshaw, and Lady help anyone who thinks so (for the record, the glorious Samantha, the most soulful maneater in the recent history of female iconography, is my favourite). But among the many moments of Sex and the City that struck a chord in me in spite of its protagonist was the occasion when she realized that perhaps, if we’re all destined for only one great love in this life, New York City was hers.

What does it mean, to have an affair with a city? To be lonely in a way so profound that one speaks to it, feels it under her skin?

I’ve known different types of loneliness in different cities, just as I’ve been different selves in them. But never, nowhere, have I had the kind of erratic, love-hate, impossible relationship to a place the way I do with Madras.

This is not the city in which the pivotal moments of my adolescence played out. Its highways, its bars, its boutiques have not been background sets to my life the way other surroundings have. This is the city that once put me on emergency antidepressants, devastated me in other ways at other times. But it is the city in which I am today, and will be tomorrow. It is the city I cannot run from, and I’ve long acknowledged my surrender.

Among other places I’ve called homes, there are two about which I still dream. One of them is lost to me in practical, bald ways: the tyranny of immigration. In those dreams, I am wistful for a life that I possessed fully, irreplaceably. The other still lies open, like a day I can simply walk into, if I so choose. For months I thought I wanted this second city. I knew myself in it so well.

But I am still here. Still here loving every single auto ride. Thinking of her, my naked city, bereft of hoardings now, as a girl stripped of her jewellery, suddenly bare of everything but her dimples. I’ve written elsewhere about this affair – how even my birth here was accidental, how my last long residence was equally fortuitous, how I wound up back here again against what felt like the wishes of every cell in my body. I have called her mistress and muse in different breaths.

I am alone in this city though there are people I live with and people I speak to. I am alone in this city in an absence of love – an absence into which the city decants herself perfectly. I am alone with this city, perhaps, like that Red Hot Chilli Peppers song.

A friend told me last year how in every hotel room he occupies, he leaves his footwear facing opposite directions. It’s a sign to the spirits, he said, that one is there only temporarily, and will not cause trouble. In the seven months that I’ve been in Chennai again, I’ve been following this advice, as though to invoke the energies of dislocation once more. I won’t be here long. I won’t cause trouble.

Today, for the first time, I placed left and right shoe facing the same direction. For whatever it is worth, for whatever this affair will amount to, I will ride it out. At the end of this, when we come to it, she will have beaten me to a pulp again. Surely. That is her nature. And it is mine to succumb to her.

For if there is one thing I have learnt, it is that the way forward is truly, truly only possible with all the epic, luminous ache of a broken heart.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Is Marriage The New Singledom?

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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.