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Reconsidering Romance and Intimacy: The Case of the Single Unmarried Woman


The term ‘single woman’ today gestures towards a host of inchoate meanings that derive from the diverse discourses of the family, free market, developmental economics, behavioral psychology, feminist and queer movements among others. Variably therefore, depending on the frame of reference, the single woman is regarded as any one or a combination of the following: unfortunate, lonely, vulnerable, incomplete, frustrated, frigid, man-hater, woman-lover, self-indulgent, promiscuous, predatory, unpredictable, non-conforming, subversive, free, independent or autonomous.


Interestingly, though not surprising in a patriarchal context, the whole gamut of reference is overdetermined by the absence of a male figure. Here singleness becomes a primary attribute of the single woman through the very act that designates and identifies her as such. Implicit in the term “single” is a reference to the overt absence in the woman’s life of sanctioned sexual relationship with a man. For a single woman is regarded as single not because she does not have friends, family, father, brother or a son but because she does not have a legitimate sexual partner; most commonly the husband being perceived as this qualified partner. The broad sweep covered by the category of the single woman therefore includes the widow, the divorcee, the separated/deserted woman and the unmarried woman. The reflections presently available on the single woman, limited as even they are, have gathered all these different modes of singleness (whether widowed, divorced, deserted, separated or unmarried) under one rubric and have treated the single woman as an objective and largely undifferentiated category. Such studies have sought to uncover the different ways in which the single woman copes in her life or have sought to illuminate her responses vis-à-vis life, career and family in the main.[1]  Even in these studies, the single unmarried woman figures as an anomaly within the more general category of the single woman and has not been extensively commented upon.


Within a field where marriage is predominantly the sanctioned form for the expression of hetero-normative desire, the figures of the widow and the divorcee are cognizable in ways that the unmarried woman is not. The unmarried single woman is either an unthinkable or an enigma, especially in the Indian context where marriages are to a large extent arranged unlike in the West for instance where it is assumed to be a matter of individual choice. In this paper I focus on the single unmarried woman in an effort to reflect on what this particular subject position has entailed in the last few decades within the Indian context.


Feminist readings of the colonial period have pointed out that ‘woman’ as a category for focused attention emerges during the nineteenth century.[2]  In a similar manner, we may ask the question when does the unmarried single woman become a cognizable or a thinkable category for the Indian context. Interestingly, one of the earliest references to the viability of such a position is available in the comments made by Cheruvari Rugmini, a Malayalee writing in the Lakshmibhayi in1923. Expressing a viewpoint that must have been undoubtedly radical for her times, she says

If you do not find a bridegroom whom you like and is worthy of you, then it is much better to live either in the service of your parents who have cared for you and protected you from all difficulties, to earn divine blessings, or educate yourselves as much as your intelligence and situation will permit, to gain appropriate employment. In this way, to hang on tothe foolish belief that wifehood alone encapsulates Womanly Duty, to bob about aimlessly in this Ocean of Worldliness full of worry, disease and want, and thus destroy one’s life, in this universe that contains many different paths to hither-worldly happiness and other-worldly salvation, is nothing less than a great crime.[3] (cited in Padmavati Amma, 2005, p.73)


The most remarkable aspect of Rugmini’s views is of course her forceful repudiation of a framework that views marriage as an obligatory aspect of a woman’s life. In contrast, moreover, she emphasizes the “many different paths to hither-worldly happiness” that are independent of marriage. However, from today’s vantage point, we perceive that the resolution Rugmini suggests is premised on proposing forms of sublimation that in the first place makes possible the very conception of an unmarried woman. In contrast to the discussion of the widow during the reform period, where the issue of her sexuality was addressed largely in terms of a problem that had to be contained, here the very process of imagining the unmarried woman requires that her desire be erased: the potential unruliness of her sexual passion has to necessarily be rechannelized and recast as devotion to some cause. In fact we may speculate that the existence of the category of the unmarried woman was not widely remarked upon in the 19th century partly because it was statistically insignificant but also because of the compensatory moves (made by women themselves as well as the social structures around) that establish her interests as other-worldly or beyond corporeal considerations and therefore as not posing any problem.


The situation however might be changing rapidly. If another survey of the kind carried out by the Committee on the Status of Women, which produced the Towards Equality Report, were to be taken up, the statistics in relation to unmarried women may be significantly more than what was found earlier. However, it must also be admitted that the category ‘unmarried single woman’ is an unstable one. In a context where the age of marriage of women and men is on the rise, first marriages at 50 and 60 years too is nothing unusual and occasionally finds mention in lifestyle magazines where such unions are celebrated. There is therefore no cut-off age after which a woman can definitively be designated as single. Also as some narrative accounts I cite later suggest, largely because the inexorable logic of our society is towards couple formation, marriage and production of a nuclear family, single is a state achieved almost by chance and in most instances rarely by design. Paradoxically however, the contingent nature that is now a characteristic of the category and which is produced by the higher age at which marriages take place has resulted in a remarkable situation: larger numbers of women now experience the status of the ‘unmarried single woman’ though they might enter into marriage or marriage-like arrangements at a later point in time. There is, therefore, an apparent increase in the numbers of the unmarried single woman and it is, rather ironically, this expansion that drives home the realization that the unmarried single woman is largely an invisible figure in terms of absence of critical thinking in relation to her situation.[4]


Such an absence would seem even more remarkable if we were to accept the claim that the single woman has always been a reality in our country. For instance, anecdotal evidence cited in an advice book titled, Single in the City: The Independent Women’s Handbook, refers to the existence of various women from the hoary past who today serve as role models for women who have decided to stay single/unmarried. However, this paper draws on the premise (and seeks further to establish it as the paper develops) that though single unmarried women existed as an empirical fact in the past, the category of the unmarried single woman (which includes women who do not have a regular partner and are not in marriage or marriage-like arrangements either of the heterosexual or homosexual kind) is a modern one for the Indian context.


The possibilities for a number of explorations open up through a focus on the figure of the unmarried single woman. Such a figure gestures towards a reordering of relationships, reorganization of notions of intimacy and an incipient subversion of the family norm. It should, therefore, be possible through a focus on this category to elicit a further understanding of a range of issues: of the sexual economy, of what constitutes the feminine, the nature of desire, the dynamic of relationships and the formation of gendered subjectivities in the context of modernity. However, for the enquiry to yield the rich insights that one may expect of it, it is important to develop a theoretical framework that can accommodate the category of the unmarried single woman.


This paper is a preliminary effort to draw the contours of such a frame in the process of addressing (only) some dimensions related to the category. In the section that follows I foreground certain moments through which the notion of the single woman emerged in India.  I briefly examine here the different registers in which the term works as well as the structures of emotions that shaped responses to the category at different points in time. It is evident from this section that the meaning of the term depends also on the age of the woman, her location in terms of region as well as her class and caste status.


In the second section I focus on two stories by Vaidehi, the well known Kannada writer, titled in their translation as ‘Pages from the Interior’ and ‘Saugandhi Talking to Herself’ which are included in Gulabi Talkies and Other Stories.[5]Both the stories have unmarried women as their protagonists and I seek to engage with the representation of these figures in the fictional narratives.


The concluding section following the reading of Vaidehi’s stories concerns itself with the framework of longing and regret within which unmarried single women are overwhelmingly placed. I suggest here that a distinction between the notions of ‘romance’ and ‘intimacy’ would help understand the nature of this overpowering sense of regret and the structure of that regret. I conclude by proposing that to the extent that this grid of longing and regret that presents itself to the unmarried single woman as a predominant structure within which she has to locate herself, she can perhaps circumvent it by choosing between the frameworks of romance and intimacy. The implications of this choice however need further examination.


‘Unmarried Single Woman’: Tracking the emergence and coherence of the category


In relation to the single woman, the most striking aspect of the situation in India is not that so many seemingly contradictory meanings accrue to the term but that it exists at all. This present condition directly contrasts with a time as recent as in the early twentieth century when even the notional possibility of the single woman was denied. For instance, intervening in the impassioned discussion provoked by the legislation of the Act VI (of 1901) by the Government of Bengal, which was meant in particular to regulate the migration of women to work in plantations abroad, Babu Ramdeo Chotham, Honorary Secretary, Marwari Association, expressed his concern in a written form to the Secretary to the Government of Bengal, stating:

Women are decoyed as freely and with as much unconcern as men and registered as single, although women are never single in this country unless they happen to be widows. The object of registering them as such is evidently to show that they are free to act for themselves. But it is a well known fact that women in this country are seldom free and are always under the guardianship of either their husbands or other relations. (cited in Sen, 1996, p.154) (Emphasis mine)[6]


Babu Ramdeo draws here on the commonsense that was established earlier through the many forceful discussions on sati and widow remarriage about Indian exceptionalism with regard to women’s dependent status in order to protest a directive by the state that recognizes women as agents in their own right. Important to note is also the fact that his definition of the single woman does not privilege the figure of the husband but the family/relations in general. However, the simultaneous acknowledgement that the widow (who would arguably have a family but not a husband) represents the only exception to the rule has the effect of undermining the possibility of broadening the understanding of the category.


Apart from the nationalist moment (Ramdeo’s response is one example), there are three other important moments in which the category of the single woman was explicitly invoked – the early feminist/queer moment of the 1980s, the developmental moment of the 1980s and 90s and the moment of liberalization and globalization ushered in from the 1990s onwards.


The feminist/queer moment


The  Towards Equality Report, which represents the foundational text for women’s studies and the women’s movement in India, does take cognition of the existence of unmarried women. Ironically, even the statistic provided by the Report is foregrounded to emphasise the near ubiquity of marriage. The Report therefore states, “Low age of marriage is related with near-universality of marriage in India. In a sense marriage is not an individual decision but a cultural one. Only 0.5% women never marry.” (p.81)


The women’s movement itself did not directly address the unmarried single woman though it produced strong critiques of the family and of the institution of marriage in particular. Within a particular kind of feminist consciousness, the single woman could well be read as a political subject with a definitive stance in relation to marriage. The feminist critique of marriage could well have projected the single woman as the radical subject who repudiates the institution of marriage itself. As against the politics of radical feminism of the West, the trajectory of the women’s movement in India however suggests that such a formulation did not gain popularity. Notwithstanding a few significant efforts to build structures alternative to marriage, the effort was largely to democratize the institution of marriage and not necessarily to abolish it.


Urvashi Butalia, a well-known feminist publisher writing in 2006 as an unmarried single woman, does apportion some responsibility to the women’s movement for her being single but not a decisive one. She states for instance,

It is difficult to write about something that is a state of being as if it were a choice. Did I choose to be single? I don’t know. I don’t remember having made strong political statements about the value or importance of being single, I don’t recall swearing I would never marry. Like all women who have cut their political teeth in the women’s movement and who have grown up on a diet of feminism, I had my critique of the institution of marriage. But that didn’t necessarily mean forswearing it, hating it, turning my back on it. Similarly, like many of my friends and colleagues, I have my critique of family, but that has never meant abandoning it, or refusing to be part of it. But equally, perhaps because I was critical of it, or because I was not wholly enamoured of the idea of marriage, I never thought of it as the ultimate aim in life for me. It could have happened, and my life would probably have taken a different path. It did not happen, and I am so completely happy and content with the path my life has taken, that the ‘absence’ or ‘lack’ of what is called a ‘permanent’ relationship has never troubled me. (Butalia, 2006, pp. 155-156)


In informal contexts, though, other women have emphasized with great relief and wonderment (at the ‘narrow escape’ they had) that but for their association with the women’s movement, they would have been married.


The critical thinking provoked by the movement with regard to relationships led to both a questioning of the institution of marriage as well as wariness about it. In some instances and locations, women’s groups also self-reflexively worked towards legitimizing non-normative relationships. Significantly, the term ‘single woman’ served as the sign around which such efforts coalesced. Tracking the dynamics of local contexts that led to the emergence of lesbian and queer identities, Paola Bacchetta in her article ‘Rescaling Transnational “Queerdom”: Lesbian and “Lesbian” Identitary – Positionalities in Delhi in the 1980s’ traces the logic of the approach adopted by a Delhi based group that involved the invocation of the term single woman:

The term ‘single woman’ was formulated in the context of building broad alliances across classes, religions, castes, regions, and now sexualities and asexualities. It was designed to be inclusive of all women who have ruptured [ties] with the heterosexual matrix: ‘lesbians’; celibates; ascetics; unmarried women; divorced women; widows. For Abha, single women disrupt patriarchal genealogies while establishing lineage with women outside their families who may or may not have been ‘lesbian’: ‘an unmarried aunt; unmarried activists in movements; ascetics or nuns’ (Bacchetta, 2007, p.120)


While the solidarities built through the use of the term is an important objective, even more critical was the reasoning of the group that the use of the category single woman served to unsettle the hetero/homo binary; the same move also enabling a shift from regarding lesbians as a numerical minority to a potential situation where they could be regarded as part of a majority of autonomous women. Under the banner of single women, the Delhi group that Bacchetta refers to was pro-active on a range of issues. At the Fourth National Conference of Women’s movements held in Calicut in 1990, this particular group, together with some others from different parts of the country organized a session on ‘Single Women’. This session focused primarily on issues related to lesbianism.[7] As the gay and queer movement acquired visibility on its own terms, it is possible that this earlier use of the term ‘single woman’ to stand in for a lesbian identity also declined.


The Developmental Moment


Around the time that the term was thus dropping off from the discourse of sexualities and alternative solidarities, it was re-emerging as an important category in the discourse of development. The inclusion of the single woman within the developmental framework has perhaps much to do with the efforts of the feminist economists in the 1980s and the 1990s to challenge mainstream frameworks within economics by focusing on female-headed households. It was a matter of time before the single woman became the subject of development. The formation of the network Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) in some states in northern India in the late 1990s is an important instance of the incorporation of the figure of the single woman into the discursive field of development. Clarifying its use of the term ‘single woman’, the write up on ENSS states that ‘under this banner widows, deserted, divorced, unmarried and the ones whose husbands are missing [can put] forth their problems.’ Further explaining the formation of the group in Himachal Pradesh, the write up on ENSS provides details:

To deal more effectively with the state of single women in HP [Himachal Pradesh], we have formed a platform called Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS). ENSS is an association of single women that is working towards securing the rights of single women to live with dignity and justice. We have taken up the issues related to the social and economic status of single women and the numerous other problems faced by them in their day to day life. ENSS, to date, has a total membership of 6059 single women, spread across 194 Panchayats and 18 development Blocks. It includes single women from all cross sections of the society; cutting across class and caste divides.[8]

Elaborating on the issues taken up by ENSS, the write-up also lists its objectives, which includes making available 10 bighas of agriculture land on lease to needy single women, the representation of single women in the panchayats, ensuring economic independence and better health care for single women and prevention of all types of violence against these women. Within the developmental discourse single women are positioned as subjects in need of governmental support; issues of land, wages, health etc. assume primary importance. Significantly, absent from the discussions about single women’s rights are issues of their self-fulfillment or desire. The objective conditions of their existence seem to overwhelm their subjective being.

The ENSS membership clearly comprises of single women from the lower class and caste groups in rural areas. Documentation of the lives of some of the unmarried women in these locations does not give any indication that they “chose” to remain unmarried or that they have turned their single status into an advantage. And yet, given that documentation of emerging scenarios is scarce, it would be difficult to conclude that processes of individuation that lead to women rejecting marriage or choosing to remain single are completely absent. The irrefutable conclusion however is that the development discourse, which is in the present the main source of information about the non-urban locations, privileges objective factors over and above considerations of women’s subjective experiences.[9]

The moment of Liberalization


Interestingly, alongside the visibility sought on behalf of single women through the developmental framework, the category of the unmarried single woman manifests itself in another setting as well; the distinction between the two is striking. Single in the City published in 2000 gathers together in its pages and gives concrete shape to the sense that being single is nothing out of the ordinary in the present moment. The book argues in fact that Indian history is abounding in figures who serve as models for today’s single women. It is interesting to note that Single in the City, the first book of its kind to focus on single women, emerges nearly a decade after the process of liberalization had begun. The book adopts the deliberate stance that the category of the Indian single woman predates the changes ushered in by the liberalization process. This argument is contrary to popular understanding that increase in the number of single women is a contemporary urban trend that has followed upon economic liberalization and social change. However, the approach adopted by the handbook in general and the nature of tips that it gives in particular clearly points to the fact that the changed socio-economic situation following liberalization is what makes the emergence of the category possible. Economic independence plays a crucial role in the lives of single women and the book does acknowledge this fact in various ways.


The breezy matter-of-fact approach adopted by the handbook in dealing with the ‘public, private and personal’ aspects of the single women’s lives is captured in the preface:

So, whether you are a professional actor or engineer, living in cosmopolitan Mumbai or small-town Nagpur; or are single by choice or by compulsion; singe for life or merely till you take the seven pheras; live with your parents or on your own with your dog; this book is intended to provide a shared experience, a common space to share, learn and grow from what we know together.


This book on single women is striking in that while it too includes different kinds of single women (widows, divorcees and unmarried women) under the same rubric, unlike other works on the subject it reverses the trend and treats the unmarried single woman as the paradigmatic case of being single.


Chasing the Good Life: On Being Single, edited by Bhaichand Patel, published in 2006, is another work that is a part of the same moment as Single in the City. The anthology includes accounts of a diverse range of singles: widows and widowers, divorcees – male and female, unmarried men and women and also the married singles (men and women who are married but for various compelling reasons do not stay in the same household/city). The blasé nature of most of the accounts included in fact seem to flounder in their attempts to view themselves as belonging to the category of the ‘single’ and to then explain what it comprises. The book has the effect of both normalizing the state of being single as well as making it seem (as the title itself would suggest) highly desirable.


Both these works, i.e. Single in the City and Chasing the Good Life, in important ways prepare the ground for and herald the more recent proliferation of books/fiction that are classified as ‘chicklit’. Chicklit, or literature meant for ‘chick’” or girls in their teens and early 20s, is centred on the lives of single young women. While career choices and moves provide the crucial backdrop for most of these stories, the plot revolves primarily around the protagonist’s desire for romance or intimacy.[10] The emergence of this genre and the huge popularity it has witnessed in a short span of time has further implications for our understanding of the category of the single unmarried woman. The cluster of new works, especially in English, would suggest that once where the ‘single woman’ was an object of pity, she is now the subject of her own life and is therefore enviable. It would seem we have come a full circle. However, in between the victim status attributed to the single woman on the one hand and the enthusiastic celebration of the status of being single on the other, there is possibly a complex of emotions that still needs to be reflected upon. In the section that follows I seek to reflect on some aspects of this situation.


Representing the single woman


I turn to the field of literature and literary representations in particular because it involves exploration of the self and desire in a manner that is at once more overt and nuanced than is generally found in other genres of writing. However, literature too has its own set of constraints. As various studies have pointed out, romantic love and marriage have been the central themes of the bourgeois novel in the West and have influenced the emergence of the novel form in our context as well. Presumably, therefore, storylines or narratives that do not culminate in or involve the marriage of the female protagonist in particular are few in number. I choose to focus on two such unusual short stories that provide the unmarried women’s point of view; two stories by Vaidehi that were published in Kannada in the mid-1980s and that have been made available in English through the anthology Gulabi Talkies and Other Stories published in 2006. I draw on the English version here. Vaidehi’s two stories are significant not only because the protagonists are single women but also because the representation of the unmarried female protagonists breaks from the conventions of romance and gestures instead towards another kind of ordering of the emotions.


The first of the two stories is titled, in its English translation from Kannada, as ‘Pages from the Interior.’ As the title suggests, the story involves an internal meditation by the main character: contemplation of her unmarried status; in particular, the reasons for her being single. As her recollections unfold it becomes clear that for Achala, marriage is not a destined practical act but one that is invested with profound meaning. While all her friends get married one after the other she steadfastly refuses marriage, rejecting, by her own count, eleven men before the men then start rejecting her.  Achala’s unwavering stand in relation to marriage is clear: ‘Do you know whom one should marry? He should be the kind that makes you feel “Aha” if you even lean against him!’ (p.16)


The story proceeds through the recounting of a series of situations that set up the arguments and counterarguments in relation to Achala’s take on marriage before ending on a note that validates Achala. Faced with the prospect of entering into a liaison (which the story seems to suggest could even have eventually led to marriage) with a man she is acquainted with, Achala remains firm in her belief that the man who will evoke passionate feelings in her does exist though the one who stands before her does not fit that bill.


The structure of desire that this story presents is in interesting contrast with the second story that I wish to look at, i.e. ‘Saugandhi Talking to Herself’. In comparison with the serious tone of ‘Pages from the Interior’ ‘Saugandhi Talking to Herself’ is cast in the tragi-comic mode. Saugandhi is the eldest unmarried daughter of doting and protective parents of a small town in Karnataka. For Saugandhi, her parents’ talk of her unmarried status grates but she does not protest and instead has other preoccupations. The story begins with her making a career-related move to another town to live on her own. The move in fact makes possible an articulation of her desire for contact with a male, any male. As the narrative admits, “if her mother knew that Saugandhi thought about someone casting himself on her like a tiger, tying her up so she couldn’t move … if she knew, she would have a nervous breakdown. Even for Saugandhi herself, these thoughts echoed clearly only now that she was alone, after having come away to this distant town” (p.113). Her intense yearning for physical intimacy with a man is however her own deep secret and finds expression only when she talks to herself. The fact of her preoccupation with experiencing intimacy with a man seems to be at odds with her shy, silent and innocent demeanor. The tragic and the comic dimension of her situation, and the story thereby, emerge from the chasm between the two. The anti-climactic end to the story too highlights this aspect.


A striking feature of both the stories is that the lives and desires of the single women are presented as internal reflections and dialogues. To an extent it is no surprise that the stories, which are so delicately crafted, adopt this particular form and actually live up to Vaidehi’s reputation as a writer who has consistently and perceptively explored the inner life of women.[11] However, one wonders also whether Vaidehi’s felicity in exploring women’s psyche is the only reason for the stories to adopt this form or whether the difficulty of presenting the desires of the single woman makes available only certain narrative forms that can signify her life and longing in a realist mode.


The ambivalence that Vaidehi’s stories stage in relation to the characters’ desire seems to gesture towards the difficulties involved in resisting the tow of conventional narrativization that endorse the ideals of romantic love which culminates in marriage. In dramatizing the tension between a heightened sense of individualism on the one hand and the desire for intimacy on the other, the stories are structurally similar to other narratives that endorse romantic love. They are, however, not resolved in the manner of conventional romances; in the process mocking it seems (not the characters themselves but the premises and goals of) such narratives. Vaidehi’s’ stories in fact set up an interesting tension between the triad of aspiration for autonomy, the hold of the notion of romantic love and the desire for intimacy. This tension is particularly palpable in the story of Achala.


The form of the inner dialogue used by Vaidehi does not place the burden of explaining within the story itself how or why Achala among all her peers should think differently about marriage. But her arguments explaining her decision are intelligible to us as modern readers while it is patently bizarre for the other characters in the story. The matter of fact explanation provided by Achala is at odds with the even more matter of fact understanding of relationships by her family members.

Even when they agreed to marry me, I did not. I did not disagree because they agreed. I did not see any light in the eyes of even one of them. I did not have the irrepressible desire to bear the child of even one of them. But according to my mother, such an intense desire does not even exist! “All that is mere fantasy. Even if you did feel that way, it would vanish the day the wedding garland is put around your neck …” ... But how can one get married for the sake of the wedding pandal,  the music, the clothes, the jewellery, for the sake of prestige, blessings and for the sacred grains of rice that are thrown on the married couple? Puttatthe, my father’s younger sister, pulled out for me the entire family tree, from generation to generation: herself, her grandmother, her mother-in-law, her great-grandmother, her daughter, and granddaughter.” (p.17)


It is the expression of her will-to-autonomy that marks Achala as a modern character. Narrative conventions have often foregrounded this transformation of the pre-modern person into the modern individual as being precipitated by the experience of romantic love. The narrative itself gestures towards this assumption: Expressing strong scepticism about Achala’s views, Saritha, one of Achala’s friends, retorts sharply, “Don’t talk the language of books. It is not always true.” (p.16)


However, it is interesting that Achala consistently expresses her desire in terms of her physicality. And yet it is possible to overlook this dimension and regard her as occupying the place of the romantic subject; the kind whom a modern reader schooled into the notion of romantic love is familiar with. Achala, who expresses her convictions and her desires most clearly especially in comparison with Saugandhi, is in my reading more ambiguously represented. Saugandhi on the other hand represents plain desire – desire to be desired. Interestingly, while both the stories are about the absence of men in the lives of the female protagonists, the men are present only as shadowy fantasies and not as real characters. There is neither a failed love story nor an actual male who is the object of desire. Both the stories make possible an exploration of positions that are not governed exclusively by notions of romantic love. Interestingly too, both the stories end with a scene at the doorway, on the threshold. Significantly, neither Achala nor Saugandhi cross the threshold, but their respective journeys to that threshold opens up possibilities for examining the subjective position of the unmarried single woman in ways that were thus far not available.




A better understanding of Vaidehi’s stories is possible if we further locate them in the context of the overwhelming structure of emotion that is commonsensical in relation to the category of unmarried single women. Undoubtedly, the social and subjective situation of each woman even within the category would vary. I refer though to the seeming uniformity that is ensured in response to such a category by a certain distribution of sensibility.[12] I refer here to the sense of tragedy that overpowers the contemporary understanding/representation of the unmarried single woman.


Commenting on Rugmini’s exhortation to women in the 1930s to find meaningful alternatives to becoming a wife, I had commented that the situation of the unmarried single woman represented a dilemma to a society that was beginning to become aware of such a category. Acknowledging her sexuality would be to admit to the possibility of a threat arising out of possible indiscretions. Such a fear is admitted till the girl is married off but has to necessarily be ignored or erased once she has crossed the commonly accepted age of marriage. She is therefore sought to be rendered asexual through a series of consensual moves in which the woman herself participates in most cases. She is overwhelmingly perceived not as a self-indulgent person but as spiritually inclined or as someone willing to devote her life for a cause. Her sublimation of herself is an important aspect that can then take the focus away from her sexuality.


Granting the possibility of women remaining unmarried and granting such a woman her desires has coincided with locating her too within the structure of romantic love, which within modernity is the most predominant mode of organizing emotions among the sexes. It is this configuration of romantic love that engenders the feeling of regret, both within the woman herself and the person responding to her emotionally, that the particular form of romantic love is absent from her life. This sense is widespread even if it is low key. It works its way even into the (more contemporary) envious responses (cited for instance in Patel, 2006) to the single woman’s apparent freedom. And most significantly, this sense of regret regarding the absence of a marriage shapes the single woman’s subjectivity as well.


The Preface to Single in the City captures some aspects of this emotional condition when it states:

Despite such optimism and variety of coping skills, a great number of single Indian women continue to feel isolated. The lack of a formal female support system exacerbates the feeling of alienation. With no determined space for interaction with peers, many Indian single women are constantly gripped with doubts. ‘Is this the right choice? Maybe I should be married with kids instead of single and pursuing a career? Am I too demanding about what I want in a man? Shouldn’t I compromise? While occasionally entertaining such thoughts is no doubt normal and even healthy, constant introspection and incessant doubts can be debilitating. For many single women, who lack a support network, prolonged depression is a fact of life. (Preface)


If the structure of feeling represented above is an indication of how unmarried single women might (even if only at times) experience their own situation, the response from others to their situation too entrenches the feelings of regret. The most effective medium for representing the many nuances of this sense of regret in relation to the unmarried woman has been cinema. Some films have even held out a veiled threat about the loneliness and loss unmarried women would have to reckon with because of their arrogance or self-willed behaviour, as a result of which they spurn marriage proposals.[13] Another set of films have through their narratives sympathized with the life and character of the unmarried woman thereby enveloping her further in a tragic discourse.[14]


To return then to Vaidehi’s stories, they are all the more striking because even as they demonstrate an awareness of the commonsense in relation to the unmarried woman, they seek to present other logics, especially ones that are not caught up in regret even as they recognize and empathize with different forms of longing. In fact, Vaidehi’s representation of the unmarried woman marks a moment in which we see clearly and perhaps for the first time a representation of the unmarried – unmarrying woman of our modernity; a moment of the ‘birthing’ of a representational logic within literature for this single woman. The stories include situations that even provide certain lineages when attempting to grasp the contemporary dimension of the single woman’s life.


While Achala’s story provides one representative lineage for the single woman that seems to have culminated in the celebration of the strong single woman who lives by her ideals, Saugandhi’s story finds its extended life not so much in literature and other forms of cultural representations but in reports from real life that have not yet found discussion space within feminism or been theorized. Within this cluster would have to be placed the distressing incident of the collective suicide of three sisters from Kanpur in the late 1980s. The suicide note clarified that they resorted to the extreme step because their parents were unable to get them married. This led to a widespread discussion at the time of the pressures exerted on girls’ families in terms of demand for dowry. If we were to change the perspectival focus and view the suicides as resulting from an inability on the part of the girls to contemplate life as unmarried women, we would have to simultaneously recognize the need for developing different analyses and responses.


Ideally, marriage provides women with a range of comforts/privileges in terms of her social, economical and emotional needs. While the argument that such an ideal marriage exists in conformity with the notions of romantic love may not be accurate, it still holds good that romantic love is a critical part in imagining the institution of marriage in its modern form. Consequently, the framework of romance characterizes the unmarried single woman as lacking.


The framework of intimacy on the other hand provides the opportunity to recast the situation of the single woman. It is not necessarily sexual emancipation that the unmarried single woman suggests but the beginnings of an alternative way of living. Marriage represents the space of the impossible romance. Outside marriage is illicitness. Chick lit, which is set in urban locations, provides the counterpoint by addressing the desire question head on – presenting it in fact as the most critical issue of contemporary times. Surely, a long way from the small town of Kundapura in Karnataka where ostensibly most of Vaidehi’s stories are situated. But it is perhaps not only this geographical difference that makes the cut. In its approach and assessment of the single life, chick lit seems far removed from the self-consciousness so poignantly depicted in Vaidehi’s stories. The equation between celibacy and singleness that Vaidehi’s stories suggest seems to have lost its universal hold.


The distinction between romance and intimacy that I read into Vaidehi’s two stories is not something that is fully worked out in the stories but exists as a possibility; contingent on a possible break from the overwhelming power of romantic love and in search of other forms of intimacy. The subject position available to the unmarried single woman seems to be an unstable one today -- still in the making and rich with possibilities.


[1] Among the few full length sociological studies of single women, Jethani (1994), Krishnakumari (1987) and Rathaur (1990) provide examples of such an approach.

[2]  See for instance the arguments proposed in the essays collected in Sangari & Vaid (1989) and the introduction to Menon (2007).

[3] Rugmini’s comments are made in the context of complex socio-cultural changes taking place in Kerala wherein marriage began to be privileged in ways that it had never been before among various castes.

[4] Unsubstantiated reports and anecdotal information about parents of young working girls, especially from economically backward sections, not arranging for their marriages in order to keep the earning member of the family within the natal home too needs to be factored in here.

[5] The stories were first published in Kannada in the 1980s and became available for English readers as recently as 2006.

[6] I thank Samita Sen for bringing this discussion of the single woman to my notice.

[7] Bacchetta, 2007, p. 122

[8], accessed on August 5, 2009.

[9] Interestingly, even where developmental programmes have encountered subjects such as the sex workers, the objective conditions of their life are foregrounded. Neither the unmarried sex workers nor the devadasis are included in the category of the single women. Obviously then, the fact of being unmarried does not by default confer her with the title “single.” This once again begs the question of what constitutes the category.

[10] Among the more popular of the chicklit titles are Advaita Kala’s Almost Single, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s You are Here and Smita Jain’Kkrishnaa’s Konfessions.

[11] The introduction to the English translations of her stories quotes a major modernist critic T.P.Ashok as saying through his publication on Vaidehi in 1995 that:

An experiential world hitherto not seen in Kannada literature takes shape in Vaidehi’s fiction. Women’s inner desires, sorrows, promise, dreams speak to us in whispers. Instead of feeling as though someone is speaking on behalf of women with generosity, pity and compassion, we feel as though the woman is laying bare her inner self in an authoritative/authentic manner. Vaidehi’s stories are unique for their subtle delineation of human feelings and situations, for the steadfastness of attention to detail, and for their artistic use of language. (p.ix)

[12] Ranciere, Jacques. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London & New York: Continuum.

[13] For instance Puttanna Kanagal’s Katha Sangama in Kannada.

[14] The most striking example is of the film titled Anthuleni Katha in Telugu that has a version in most South Indian languages and also has a Hindi remake. The story there revolves around the main protagonist, played by Jayaprada in Telugu and Rekha in Hindi, being the eldest daughter of the house responsible for the upkeep of the house as well as for “settling” her various siblings in her capacity as the honorary male of the family. The filmic narrative in fact does have a male character who is in love with the heroine but ends up marrying the sister in deference to the wishes of the sacrificing elder sister. Choice, in the filmic narrative, is largely signalled in this manner or in the complete commitment given to a profession or a passion that then does not allow space in the woman’s life for a man or a marriage. Providence too often seems to have a very strong role in cinematic depictions of the unmarried woman. This is best captured in a film like Umrao Jaan, where an early choice made in terms of selling two abducted girls into two different kinds of families results in one marrying the man desired and loved by Umrao Jaan who then remains unmarried. Of course, the situation of the courtesan and the prostitute as unmarried single women has ramifications that are quite different from those for women who conform to the sexual mores of ‘respectable living’ The sense of regret that suffuses descriptions of and responses to the unmarried woman are not meant for these women. Interestingly, mainstream films like Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jayenge and Pardes had single women who are depicted as desiring subjects. The implication of the changing cinematic representations of the unmarried woman is perhaps the subject for another kind of study.




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